In the farming calendar, there will always be a few major chores which are approached with particular reluctance.  For some, it may be rounding up fall slaughter stock, when a favourite steer hops onto the trailer for a final ride.  Or it could be that first cut towards the commitment of haying–the hours of working under a hot sun, or under cloudy skies, the anxious hope that the weather will co-operate until the bales are safely stowed away.

For this beginning farmer, there are a few runners up in the Most Trying Task category. Clipping the wings of my entire laying flock comes to mind. The pastures of Horse Drawn Farms are peppered with trees that allow easy escape up and over the electric net to any bird with a sense of adventure, making it necessary to limit vertical advantage. The first few are easy–one just reaches into the mass of feathered bodies in the coop and grabs the first pair of available legs. Invert legs, find wings, snip off feathers, done. But as the number of legs decreases and the hens have room to run away from grasping fingers, it becomes progressively dirtier, dustier, and dandruffier to catch the little devils. By the time the second-last hen has exploded up and over my head for the fourth time in a cloud of flapping feathers, pulverized bedding and scrabbling poopy feet,  I usually regret that I began the whole operation. But this is not the worst chore on Horse Drawn Farms. Oh no. That dubious distinction belongs to the sheep barn.

Equipment for the Tri-Annual Sheep Barn Marathon

A pleasantly innocuous place, the sheep barn. At least, most of the time. Most of the time, it has a mild, sheepy smell.  The smell of lanolin and fresh straw.  The straw is fresh everyday, layered over the old straw, building up the floor a bit at a time.   It’s a method that works well with sheep as they pack it down into a straw mattress, and it makes preparing their night quarters laughably easy compared to, say, the horse stalls, which must be carefully cleared of all soiled bedding.  The addition of fresh straw can continue for quite a time.  As long as one can find other things to do with one’s evening hours–and what farmer doesn’t?– it’s easy to just keep layering.  And layering.  No matter that the sheep are now leaping up a foot or so onto the bedding,  or that the hay bunker, bolted to the floor, is slowly disappearing.  It’s clean, odorless and comfortable in there.  So what if I have to duck to avoid hitting my head on the rafters?

It is usually around the time I can spot the ears of three foot high sheep protruding above the five foot high door that I realise the inevitable has come around once again.  The bedding has become ridiculously high, and all those time-saving layers are about to get their revenge.  Ushering the ewes off the edge of the straw precipice and back to solid ground outside the barn for the last time, I steel myself and head to the tool shed for the pitchfork and the muck cart.   For unlike my more fortunate compatriots who would be able to complete the job in ten minutes with the bucket on their John Deere, this tractorless farmer is obliged to scrape out the sheep barn by hand.  Scrape is perhaps not the appropriate term under these circumstances.  The floor is so packed that it requires agonizing, vicious fork-jabs to even begin to loosen into manageable chunks.  Chunks utterly sodden with urine and manure, disgorging a most remarkable stench, and weighing seventy-five pounds each.  I can manage to lift three or four into the cart before its wheels begin to flatten in protest and I won’t be able to push the thing to the muck pile.

Three or four (or five or six) hours of  hideous labour is not necessarily a bad thing, however.  There is a rhythm to monotonous, difficult work that I believe has been largely forgotten by the mechanized farmer.  There is a joy in movement, a delight in the heavy use of muscle and sinew that must be experienced to be believed.  It is the kind of physical effort that, in the old days, was shared by family and community and brought people together under the common banner of food independence.  Granted,  no family usually appears at  my sheep barn.  Luckily, the work can also be a time for reflection and observation.  If I had a tractor, for example, would I have noticed how the moment I turn the first piles of bedding back, honeybees immediately come to investigate the pungent scent?  How they land and extract something or other from the urine-soaked straw?   Would I appreciate how my hens carefully size up each cart-load that is dropped for their scratching and spreading services?   How the entire flocks runs frantically to each new pile in case they miss any getaway grubs?   And how often does one have the opportunity to bask in the relative quiet and simply listen to what’s happening on the farm?   These small occurrences are the soul of the land, and I, for one, am glad to experience them.  As for the reward of the scraped-down barn–that speaks for itself.   A fresh, empty floor.  A hay bunker once again apparent along the wall.  Fresh straw for the sheep, and weeks and weeks of easy husbandry ahead.

Time will push on, I suppose.  Soon I will once again be able to reach the rafters, or perhaps step out of the barn window with minimal effort.  But by then the season will be changing and there’ll be new things to see and hear when the pitchfork makes its appearance.  Unless anyone has a tractor to donate?

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Our ever vigilant Farm Ambassador.

No farmer can rely on a static environment.  Farming’s very nature is change, the dynamics of the weather, the shift of the seasons, the tasks that diversify in the warm months and contract again as it grows cold.  But there are elements of farm life that remain, that are comfortable, familiar, perhaps for years.  And then, suddenly one day, they disappear, too.  And then the farm feels like it might never be the same again.

Our farm dog wasn’t much of a farm dog.   He was far more a farmhouse dog,  a big softy that didn’t like to go out in the rain.  While sheep held a definite fascination for him, he never did quite figure out what to do when he came face to face with one, and generally stood stock still with only the high point of his tail whisking gently back and forth.  Impressive in stature and spirit, however, he made a point to personally welcome each customer of Horse Drawn Farms.  Some, after seeing the gigantic form of a jet black Great Dane come charging down the driveway towards them at full tilt, never came back.  Those that did came to enjoy that the huge head in their car window, the eager, laughing face and the deep bark  were as much as part of the visit as the very fine eggs they were there to procure.

The weather was vacillating from hail to sunshine the day it happened, the typical coastal spring.  Seedlings were nestled in the greenhouse, and the lambs quietly moved between grass and shelter while my mind rehearsed the upcoming mad dash of planting.  Rupert had been out  with me most of the day, his familiar black outline following me, now to the goat paddock, now to the horses where he waited for Cirrus’s grain to be set down.  Cirrus, ever obliging, was the only horse who seemed not only to tolerate Rupert sharing his breakfast, but actually to welcome the companionship of a second head in his feed tub.  (More than once, I watched the old boys, each with half of the same carrot in their mouths, politely demur as to its ownership with a definite clamping down of  teeth.   Cirrus, with his advantageous incisors, usually won out.)   As the afternoon drew late, the motorcycle of my husband came up the drive signalling Rupert’s daily off-farm walk, and after some joyous greetings,  he and my husband set out together.

A phone call interrupted dinner preparations.  Rupert, now soaked with a sudden violent hailstorm, was not well and needed to be picked up by car.  Immediately I jumped in the truck and pulled out of the driveway to find my husband standing with him less than 100 meters away–they had not even been able to cover that small distance.  It did not bode well.  Once home, my husband and I thoroughly dried and warmed him, but it was clear he was feeling faint.  He teetered to his bed in the living room and collapsed, exhausted.  Later, standing up by his water dish, he vomited.  We were somewhat relieved–perhaps he had only picked up a bug. We made him comfortable and warm for the night, hoping for improvement by morning.   It was clear within those few hours, however, that he was, in fact, gravely ill.  He gamely stood up at the sound of the feed buckets being filled for morning chores, but quickly lay down again, and  we decided then and there to carry him to the truck for a trip the emergency veterinary hospital.  A battery of ultrasound and blood tests confirmed: he was in heart failure.

We euthanized him at home that evening, on his bed in the living room.  He lay in state there the following day, a practice I had never understood until I felt the strange comfort that his still body provided.  I could pat his head, stroke the familiar ear, and yet look in his eyes and see that he was dead, that his spirit, our dog, our beloved friend and companion, wasn’t there any more. It was soothing, and final.  Our grief spilling over, my husband and I wept helplessly together as we buried him near the kitchen window.

The change is keen, and lonely.  So often does Horse Drawn Farms feel like a one-woman show as my husband drives out each morning to his own work, that the lack of companionship during my day is now dreadful.   I lost a friend, one who had been at my side–much MORE at my side, in fact– during my transformation from suburban nine-to-fiver into a farmer out in the fields all day.   But there is a realization in this new loneliness–that the business of any farm is not meant to be a solitary endeavour.  I realize how very much I looked forward to the animated bark from the driveway, because it meant visitors, chat, laughter, and most of all, excitement and enthusiasm about fresh, local food.  My dog lessened the solitude after the visitors went away, and his absence amplifies it.  I felt this reality still more strongly when I attended a farm lecture/concert in the city less than a week after his death.  Many people gathered, talked and sang about their adventures in discovering and growing food in their community, and their  enthusiasm was infectious.  At the lecture, I felt my own passion for the subject begin to rise once again.  Back at home, alone the next morning with a shovel in my hand, it all seemed dreary, and pointless.
What do I do with this revelation?  Do I contact a local school or gardening group? Do I advertise for a partner, or for volunteers?  The possibilities are there, and will need looking into if I am not to lose my way.   Thus is the struggle of one beginning farmer.

The most useful piece of equipment on the farm.

When your farm operates on someone else’s property, it’s a different world. At Horse Drawn Farms, we have been lucky to be comfortably encamped here for many years with an excellent landlord. But always, always in the back of our head is the black reality that it will all end one day; we will get the dreaded phone call–“We will not be renewing your lease.” Acreage after acreage along our stretch of road has been developed into condensed housing–hundreds of people living where once stood grassy fields, some cows, an orchard. Right now, these people are our customers, but eventually their presence will push us out. It’s hard to be psychologically prepared for this, but we have at least tried to minimize the complete upheaval it will cause.
In terms of stock-keeping, for example, we made the decision early on to use temporary, portable  fencing, for the most part. Under many real estate laws, permanent fencing with set posts becomes the property of the landowner once it is installed, no matter who installed it. Although permanent fences would be far more convenient in retaining difficult stock like sheep and goats, we have decided the loss of such a tremendous investment in post and wire perimeter fencing would be too great to bear.  For the horse fencing, steel stock panels which lock together have been invaluable.  The panels will keep in full grown sheep in a pinch, but for our smaller grazing stock, we now run three separate sheep/poultry nets which rotate through the available grass.  Each net squares off a decent 1600 feet of grazing and will keep five ewes happy for several days under prime growing conditions.  There is nothing like the satisfaction of watching your girls charge into fresh pasture with a relish–it’s the pleasant feeling of Mission Accomplished.

But make no mistake: if moving nets with two people is a pain,  moving them by yourself is…well…awful.   Usually the attempt results in some sort of injury, psychological or otherwise.  Passers-by to Horse Drawn Farms may have seen me, face down in the field, struggling, with my right boot, left boot, and right arm up to the elbow entangled in that demonic orange mesh.  (With the left hand, I may be calling any friends that live nearby, or 911.)  Even when well-organized, it’s a time-consuming rigamarole to place a net, peg out the corners, make a sweeping funnel entry (galloping sheep have trouble finding the entrance otherwise), and hook up the fence controller.   We do it several times a week for the lambs, the ewes and goats, and the poultry.

Protected lambs are happy lambs.

Time considerations aside, there’s no debate about an electric net’s efficacy.  One touch, and no sheep goes near it again.  The lambs can graze one net over from their mothers and feel at ease, and the chickens love to spread the sheep pellets around making manure spreading unnecessary.  Since the regular use of electricity, the bears and coyotes have kept a wide margin between themselves and the farm, despite the changing locations of the nets.   Oh sure, it would be easily to just chuck out the stock onto acres of permanently fenced fields.  But then, we wouldn’t have the up-close observation of what the animals are up to, what they’re eating, how they’re doing.   It’s a trade off that makes life interesting here on Horse Drawn Farms.

Horse Drawn Farms feels like a bit of an island sometimes.  Awash in a sea of development on our particular street, we try to hold on and do some honest to goodness farming,  but it can be tough.  Both Peter and I, while relishing what we have on our acreage, crave the quiet of the true country.  With the street’s improvement in 2009, the backdrop of car traffic is now omnipresent.  The noise overwhelms the calls of our resident songbirds, the rustle of wet leaves in the temperamental April atmosphere, even the spring peepers calling from the back field puddles at 2 am.   The nearness of drivers zipping past the farm’s frontage poses a significant danger as well; should any stock escape up the driveway, it isn’t likely that a lamb, goat or horse would have a chance.

Kids of all kinds are welcome on the farm.

However, our improved road does bring something that is less likely to occur on a country lane:  a sidewalk.  And with that sidewalk comes kids: young and old, on foot, bicycle, skateboard and scooter.   Barely a day passes when we don’t have a kid climbing on the frontage fence, reaching up to pat our horse Jimmy, or to peer over the top railing at the sheep and goats  in the paddock beyond.  To these city kids, such animals are at first a novelty, creatures read about in books and seen on TV, with no more foundation in reality than The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  But once on the fence and the onlooker gets an approving wave and smile from me, the questions begin:   How many lambs are there?  Do you ride the horses?  Do chickens really lay eggs?    It is truly a delight to watch the answers light a spark in the faces of the the young people.  A nearby Mom or Dad seeing the interest often chimes in with questions of their own.    When we have something extra neat, such as this week when our dairy goat Elizabeth gave birth to her kids, I extend an invitation to kids and parents alike to come down and have a look.   The number of kids to which I have held out a lamb, bunny, chick or baby goat for petting is now in the dozens.  Elizabeth has been milked by several small experimenters, and Jimmy’s coat has been brushed to a glossy satin.  The look of excitement when a young face peers into our chicken coop nestbox and gently lifts out a newly-laid egg is something to behold.   It’s almost universal:  in the hearts of our visitors, a transformation occurs, a slowing down, a timelessness, a connection with the animals which feels ancient and natural.   And although it produces no income, I firmly believe this transformation is our little farm’s most valuable product.

Will any of those kids on the fence become farmers themselves?  No one knows–but we’ll keep the railings kid-friendly, just in case.

 

Bees were really the beginning of Horse Drawn Farms changing from an equestrian hangout for teenagers to a production-centred landscape.     After reading one afternoon several years ago about the seriousness of bee losses, I made up my mind to help in the best way anyone can: to have  hives on my property.  Common to many new beekeepers, I’m sure, I only ever intended to have one or two.  Yep,  just one or two…that’d be enough.

Packages of bees. Each tube contains a queen and her 10 000 workers.

After some research, I thought the most logical way to proceed was to take a course offered by a local commercial outfit before buying myself two package of bees.  Armed with pen and paper, I took note of the procedures which the commercial beekeeper presented as standard:  which pesticides to apply to the frames in the spring to kill off the almost universal verroa mites; how during the summer it would be necessary to treat for various bee diseases such as nosema, how I could rob a great deal of honey provided I supplied food through the fall, and how it was vital to re-queen the hive annually to ensure a strong population of workers.   Conveniently, after the course was completed, the beekeeping shop on the same property offered everything a beginner could need.  I probably spent around $600 on the various bee boxes, lids, frames, foundations, and of course the panoply of chemicals with which to dress the whole operation.

I’d read that 3 pound packages would make excellent starter hives and excitedly installed my very first bees.    They prospered at first, and I delighted in the busy activity that surrounded my little boxes.  Dutifully following my notes from the course, I followed commercial standards and applied pesticides at the correct times and in the correct amounts after testing the hives positive for mites.   I took honey from the hives in the summer, and set feeders in for the early fall.  Bees were taking the syrup I prepared, and frequent refills were necessary.  But I noticed something was not quite right.  Each time I refilled the feeders, I saw  reduced numbers of bees on the frames.  I read up.  I checked the queens, and there they were, laying.  Brood of all ages was evident in both hives.  Yet the numbers continued to decline.   When it came time to cluster for the winter, I had little hope.  There were so few bees left in either hive, they couldn’t possibly generate the heat require to keep things alive.  On the first warm day in the very early spring, my fears were realised as both hives were dead.

There are few things more desolate than a dead bee hive.  Piles of bodies.  Empty comb.  Dessicated larvae and half-finished cells.  It was heartbreaking to a new beekeeper.  I was tempted to give up.  But either by lucky coincidence or the interference of bee-gods, shortly thereafter I was introduced to a friend of my mother’s who happened to be a lifelong beekeeper.  With forty hives on his place, he was a wealth of experience.  He listened quietly while I described my woes, shaking his head from time to time with a sad little smile.  “The one thing I’ve learned about bees,”  he finally said in his low-key way, “is that less is more.”    Less interference, he went on to explain, and more attention to the hive’s natural behaviours would do far more to protect the health of bees than any human-made chemical ever could.  “Allow the bees to work up a large, closed population, and you’ll have no trouble whatsoever,”  he said.

I took his wisdom to heart, and started again with two new packages.  No chemicals, no overharvesting, no manipulation whatsoever of queens.  By mid-May, those two hives were overflowing and I split to make five separate hives.  I did not add a new queen to the halves without them.   I quashed my desire to control what was going on, and allowed them to figure out that they were queenless all by themselves. New brood was in each one within a few weeks.  The bees knew what to do, each hive had bred and mated a queen all on its own!  I took honey from all the hives, but left a large supply to do its job: feeding bees throughout the winter.  And to my surprise, without any pesticides of any kind, the verroa counts were down in every hive.

This past  February, the less-is-more approach gave me its ultimate reward:  five hives successfully overwintered.    As the late spring days approach and a bonanza of bee activity is evident in my orchard, I’ll split my five to ten.  Yep, ten’s a good number.  After that I’ll keep a close watch….but mostly from my kitchen window.

Experienced farm folk know that the act of raising animals great and small inevitably brings with it a close connection with death.  After all, in many cases, the livestock we grow is destined to become our food, killed for that purpose.  Academically, I understood and accepted this as I entered upon this new lifestyle, but it did not stop my hands from shaking when I culled my first rabbit from our breeding stock.  After watching a few videos on Youtube to learn the techniques of killing and butchering, I realised there was no substitute for the real thing.   As a thirty-something suburbanite, the reality of removing life was quite different from that of a farm kid with a lifetime of exposure to the act of killing.  Decades of only ever nurturing and protecting pet animals that lived and played in my childhood home, and later in my own apartments and houses, was turned upside down.  Here was an animal in my arms, just the size of our pet cat, similarly vital and breathing and beautiful,  neither aged nor ill, and I wanted to take its life, break its neck, remove that miracle of electrical impulse, synapse and chemistry.  The opposition of these two poles was difficult for me to overcome as I stood over  the rabbit.  But I did kill it, and many more in the year following, becoming with each subsequent kill more and more comfortable with this self-endowed power as Giver of Life or Death.

The coming of  Horse Drawn Farms’  very first lambs was  a delight, and in my newness as a shepherd, I could not help but choose a favourite.  The only black lamb, with a small white patch or two across her back and the daughter of my best ewe, was an obvious candidate.  I carried her around in her first week, making friends, removing her fear and being gratified when she came to nibble at the tops of my boots or barely batted an eyelash as I approached her curled-up form tucked into a corner of the pen. By now,  my life-or-death power was in full swing.  This one will stay, I decided, and become one of my breeding flock. As I stroked her velvety wool, still coiled in little twists over her body, I envisioned her all grown up and perhaps having black lambs of her own–and all for me.   Yes, I had made my mind up about her, I thought, giving her warm little head a sniff.  The wonderful no-smell of baby lamb was a perfume.

And then she was dead.  I found her the next morning, hung.  She had strangled herself upon a hay net left, by me, hanging too low in the lamb pen.  I stared, aghast.  Hundreds of twists in the nylon of the net and the bare patch of flooring underneath swept free of straw told the story of a lengthy struggle.   Perhaps it was hours, spinning, gasping, kicking; plunging as the life was slowly squeezed out of her.  This was the power I had begun to feel smug about– she had died a horrible, prolonged death through my carelessness.

After loosing the stiff little body and laying it aside just outside the pen, I opened the door for turnout as usual.  Four ewes and their lambs charged out, but Emily only stood over her dead child, sniffing it carefully, chuckling her humming mother-call, puzzled as to why it wasn’t ready to go.  I left her for quite a while, to see if the pull of the flock would bring her along, but nothing would induce her to walk more than three or four steps.  In the end, I had to carry the lamb out to the paddock for her, and laid it in state where she could watch its still form as she ate.   In the afternoon, I finally removed it.

Writing this now in my office two days later, I can still hear her loud and obviously worried calls outside, reverberating into a stillness from which comes no answer.  I cherish the luxury I have of seeing the sheep run out each morning, the young ones joyously leaping and bounding in their exuberance at the freedom, the wonder of their new lives.   But I am weighed now, perhaps as all farmers should be, by the sense  of responsibility I have.  As a farmer producing animals, I am the cause of their life.   It falls to me, then, to remain vigilant, to ensure that their lives are the most comfortable, the most natural lives possible, and that their end, no matter when it comes, is the best possible death.

When you’re a suburban farmer and you’ve never had lambs before, it might be tempting to build your temporary lamb pen within steps of your house.  You’ll want to keep an eye on your new arrivals, no doubt, and be able to get there fast, should the need arise.   But make no mistake:  there  are cons to having  sheep  just outside the back door.   Many, noisy cons.   Retrospectively, in fact, having five pregnant ewes back in the converted garage at the end of the driveway wasn’t bad at all.  Although their  hungry yells penetrated the solid wood doors every morning when they finally heard my footsteps crunching on the gravel, I knew that with the touch of the latch, the noise would switch off and five woolly, fecund balloons would come catapulting  out in a headlong rush towards their paddock, and breakfast.  But lambing time changed all that.

Silence is golden.

The wonder of free stuff on Craigslist got the lambing pen off the drawing board and into action.  Winter wind storms can be brutal here on the west coast, and a great many Costco tarpaulin car shelters love to go tumbling through the suburbs, up streets and down alleys, until they rest in little piles against the local telecommunications compound.  Others simply get flattened when the occasional heavy snowfall turns to rain, and their owners aren’t inclined to leap out of bed at 3am to brush off the 40000 pounds of snow mush.  After such weather extremities, Craigslist comes alive with offers of tangled metallic wrecks, and the messes often end up at Horse Drawn Farms.  Many an animal shelter here has been constructed  fitting undamaged portions together, with good success.   The lamb pen was more elaborate in that it required a full floor, (delicate young lambs must be protected from moisture),  but Craigslist provides all needs.  Ten sturdy pallets were procured, as were some discarded plywood sheets once used for forming concrete.  At last, with the overhead tarp securely fastened and a deep bed of clean straw, all was ready.

A week later, when the  pen was occupied by its first mother, Daisy, with her twin ram lambs, I began to notice how she watched the back entrance to the house.  It would happen in the morning, just after putting on my boots and hat and gathering the dog and cats for their dawn egress.  With impeccable timing, as the door opened a crack, Daisy would unleash a bellow that could raise the dead.  And would repeat it,  constantly, until her breakfast was  served.  Since this involved a walk to hay shed to retrieve the goods, a considerable three or four minutes could pass. And all the while her volume increased, utterly drowning out not only the pleasant cheeps of the morning songbirds, but the nearby traffic,  Tintin the rooster, and even the din of the still-pregnant prisoners of the sheep garage.   I had been used to stopping at the chickens first– a simple tip of ration into their feeder took only seconds–  but no longer.  Daisy’s gratification was now the priority.

Then Spotty Legs had her twins, and the ante was upped.  Either hungrier than Daisy or just with sharper vision, her peculiarly deep rumble preceded the door opening, for she saw me well in advance through the picture window, reaching for my jacket.  Cowering under two ewes giving full voice only steps from the door, I started trotting to the hay shed, rather than my usual sleepy stroll. When Lucy, known for her persistence in shouting even when her mouth is stuffed full,  joined the group with her single lamb, I began to leave the hay ration next to the stairs instead, ready to pop it straight into the pen.  The cacophony was added to daily by high-pitched little baas, ever increasing in number and confidence.  I tried skulking into the back room.  But it was no good keeping the curtains closed, because sharp-eyed Spotty saw the movement of my silhouette and let loose.  Then Emily had her twin lambs and moved in.   The smartest ewe of the bunch, she learned by association and began to bawl when she heard my alarm clock ringing upstairs.  And Charlotte, last of the ewes to join the congregation with her twins, simply didn’t want to miss out on any potential activity and baaed at random, sometimes at 3am.

A moment of quiet. It won't last.

 

I was beginning to feel hunted.  Both ewes and lambs now shouted at every sight of me, their hapless caregiver.  Oh, the morning hay kept them quiet for a few minutes.  But I could no longer move through the yard, at any time, without being bombarded by baas.  The appearance of the muck cart set them off.  Me leading a horse set them off.  Heading out in the truck for supplies set them off.  Me slinking away to hide behind the horse stall walls with my hands over my ears only seemed to spur them on.   In the morning, I  worried, and watched the windows of the neighbours, lest a shotgun should appear.  By the afternoon, I was considering the shotgun myself.

Luckily however, time marches on, and the lambs are now old enough to spend all day turned out in a paddock with their mothers.  This morning was their first time out, and the relief in the home yard is palpable.  Tintin, the birds and the traffic have the place to themselves, and I have plans already hatching for next year…to build that lamb pen as far away as possible.