Tuesday, June 30, 2009


They're finally here. Last Friday, as you probably know, I set out for Southern Missouri to pick up my five babydoll sheep. We had been having a pretty severe heat wave and the temperature where I was headed was expected to be over 100 degrees by Friday afternoon and at least that hot on Saturday. I'd considered a few alternatives including getting up super early on Saturday and driving down there, and turning around and coming right back. That seemed like a bad idea. Then, I figured I'd leave in the early afternoon, and just stay in a hotel close to my destination. Kristin, the woman who raises the sheep offered to let me spend the night with them on Friday so I could get an early start back on Saturday. This worked out the best because I would be driving in relatively cooler weather for much of the trip, and I'd get back to Iowa early enough in the day to spend the afternoon with the sheep, helping them get settled in.

I took off around noon on Friday and before I'd even gotten out of Monroe County, the Check Engine light came on in the truck. This has been happening intermittently and we can't seem to figure out why. I considered turning around for about a tenth of a second, and then decided to keep going. It stayed on the entire time. Just to be safe, I figured I would go easy on the truck, not go over 60 and not run the air. Yes, you heard me. I did not run the air the entire trip. By 4:00 on Friday, I was just outside of Jefferson City, Missouri and the thermometer on my rear view mirror indicated that it was 98 degrees. I reached Kristin's farm, just outside of Springfield by 6:45. She and her family had rounded up the sheep already, the entire flock, and separated out the five that were going home with me. She gave me a quick lesson on trimming their hooves, giving them their annual vaccine injections, and worming them. I then got a quick tour of their vineyard and we headed inside, out of the heat, and spent some time talking grapes, wine, various viticulture practices, the merits of organic certification and so forth. I was asleep by 10:00 and up by 5:15.

We loaded the sheep into the box and I latched the door, and was back on the road by 6:30. I had gassed up the truck the night before so I wouldn't have to stop more than once, and I headed back toward home. The trip down was 340 miles so I knew if I fueled up after about 150 miles I could check on the sheep, refill their water bucket, and do all of this before it got too hot. I calculated that I'd be able to drive the rest of the way straight through without having to stop again. I figured that would be the easiest on the sheep because as long as we were moving, the breeze would help, even if it got back into the upper 90s again.

I had originally planned to bring home three lambs but Kristin had a yearling wether and an infertile ewe that she offered me a great deal on, so I took them too. It's probably going to work out better than the original plan because these lambs are very skittish and take their cues from the adult sheep. The ewe, "Jill" is very sweet and warmed up to me pretty quickly, with the help of some grain. The little yearling wether (a neutered male) is pretty comfortable eating out of my hand and letting me scratch his chin, but thus far the lambs are not quite sure about us. It will take a little time I guess.

I got home around 1:00 and Greg had been working all day on the fence, and setting up a temporary pen for them. We used a piece of plywood and some 2 x 4s to make a ramp, and after much coaxing, the sheep ran/slid one at a time down the ramp and into the pen. They settled in quickly and started munching the grass in the pen. Greg and I spent the rest of the afternoon making a larger enclosure for them within their big pasture so they would have a safe place at night until the dog gets here. That should be sometime this week.

Friday, June 26, 2009

On the Road Again...

Well, right now, Deb is in Missouri picking up her sheep. She left this afternoon for the 6 hour drive south and surely by now is learning a little bit more about what she's gotten herself into. She is staying at the farm where she is purchasing the sheep and this evening she will get a lesson on trimming the sheep's hooves. Interestingly, the farm she is purchasing the sheep from also is in the process of putting in a vineyard and has future plans similar to ours. At some point, once we have permission, we'll put a link to their website. Next year, I'll try to go down there with her, but this time, I still have work to do...

I finished nailing up the fencing up to the gate this evening, I'll finish securing properly tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, I'll be waking up early to finish one last h-brace and will be installing the gate. I then need to complete their shed, the framing is done, just needs a roof and the siding completed.

Never fear, Deb took the camera with her and I'm sure we'll have plenty of photos to share tomorrow evening or Sunday.

Until next time...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I warned you...

I might go off on a tangent now and then. Trust me, if this blog was all grapes all the time, you'd soon be telling me this is one very boring blog. Therefore, I feel I must throw you a curve now and then, so today I present to you...
The Silkie Chicken. I.am.not.kidding! Those are chickens. And yes, they certainly do look silkie! Okay, here's the deal. Ya know how you have those special places on the web you like to check in with, on a pretty regular basis? Well, one of mine happens to be Craigslist. Yeah, yeah, I know all about the sociopaths lurking around on Craigslist, but I'm not too worried because my particular category of interest is the Farm and Garden section. I don't think Hannibal Lecter is hanging out there. I have a little list of items I'm always on the lookout for, and I go looking for them a couple of times a day. You might even say Craigslist Farm and Garden is my "happy place" on the World Wide Web. One time I found a dirt cheap Spring Rake for the back of my tractor the day after pricing a new one at Tractor Supply... I had to drive two hours round trip to get it but what a deal!

Anyway, I usually end up scrolling quickly through the day's postings in case there's a deal on one of the things on my list; as I tell Greg... "There are things I might need!" (for instance, I'm on the lookout for a large polyethylene tank, at least 1000 gallons, no leaking, and I don't want to pay too much, and bonus if it already has a valve fitting for a hose to attach). When I finish my first run through the list to see if anything I'm looking for has been posted for sale while I slept, I go back through again, more slowly, and check out all the weird stuff people have for sale. That is how I found the Silkie Chickens. The baby chicks are $2.50 a piece and if I knew what the heck to do with a dozen silkie chickens, I'd have already called that lady to make arrangements to pick them up.

Hmmm, I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that free-range chickens can be put to work eating insects in your garden. I wonder how they'd get along with my sheep?

Mutton Mowers

Okay, maybe that's too graphic. How about Wooly Weeders or Weed Warriors? Anyway, I'm not sure there is anyplace in the U.S., with the possible exception of Hawaii, where coyotes have not carved out a niche for themselves. With the exception of RATS, I can't think of a more adaptable animal off the top of my head. Rural Iowa is definitely Coyote Country. I seldom see them but I hear them howling at night quite often, particularly in the spring. With our close proximity to the Lake Miami Wildlife Management Area, Coyotes are an inevitable part of living here. They play a role in controlling the population of rodents of all types, and are a part of the ecosystem here. They are welcome to all the rabbits, squirrels, mice, moles, voles, and chipmunks they can catch and carry away. What they are not welcome to is my little sheep. Livestock animals, particulary small livestock, are the low-hanging fruit of the food chain. In order to avoid having my sheep become the main course for a pack of coyotes, I need to protect them. Which brings me to...

Sophia! She's a female Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog. I got the call today that she is ready to go to her new home and guard her sheep. She's currently in Rescue in Council Bluffs, Iowa, guarding goats. She will be making her way to Bluff Creek Vineyards sometime the week following the arrival of the sheep. She's a beautiful young female and should fit in well here. She's been in rescue for several months, after being found running along I-80 west of Des Moines. She has been evaluated in terms of her willingness and ability to guard livestock and has passed the test with flying colors. I'm really looking forward to getting her here and adjusted to her flock and new family. I'll be a lot less nervous knowing she's out there keeping an eye on things.

I still have a bit of work to do to get things ready for Sophia and the sheep, and that will be accomplished by the end of this weekend. I need my fence to be pretty bomb proof, as I will need to keep Sophia in, and all manner of unwanted guests OUT! I'll post more pictures when I get them.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A BOX? What's it for?

Greg and I built this box to go in the back of the truck next weekend when I head down to Missouri to pick up my sheep. It will eventually serve as a doghouse when I'm not hauling sheep around in it...
About two years ago, I started reading about the utility of using sheep in the vineyard to help with mowing and weed control. I started doing a little research and sure enough, people were starting to use sheep as an alternative to spraying herbicide, and continuously running a mower in vineyards and orchards. What I found were a couple of alternatives. U.C. Davis was using full-sized sheep in vineyard trials, and were "training" the sheep to avoid the grape leaves by feeding them grape leaves, followed by a harmless chemical that upset their stomach. The thinking was that the sheep would associate the upset stomach with the grape leaves, and avoid eating the vine foliage and focus on the weeds and grass. They've had some success with this, but apparently the sheep need to be "re-trained" periodically as they tend to "forget" why they aren't eating the leaves. Intrigued, I kept digging. I found that the other alternative was to use miniature sheep. That is correct! Tiny sheep that top out at about 22 inches at the shoulder. These diminutive sheep are simply too short to reach the leaves and grapes, and can be put into the vineyard in the early spring to get a jump start on weeds and grass, and then taken out later in the growing season as the foliage starts getting within reach and the grapes start to ripen. After harvest, back in they go, to help clean up the vineyard floor and take down the remaining weeds and grass before winter. I made up my mind that Bluff Creek Vineyards would soon be home to a small flock of these sheep.
I soon learned that Old English Southdown Sheep or "Babydoll" sheep are an ancient breed from Southern England that nearly died out but were brought back from the brink by Robert Mock, who located a small flock and set about the task of building back their numbers from the original stock. They are a really small sheep, and from what I understand, they are not technically "miniature sheep" but rather just small sheep, driven to their size by the conditions they lived under, I guess much like the Shetland Pony and other ponies from the British Isles.
I located a breeder and got on her list for 2009 lambs. We designed our trellis system to keep the cordons well above their reach. I'm starting out with either 5 or 6 sheep. I will expand the flock if this experiment goes well. We've run fence for their permanent pasture, and I'm investigating moveable hot-wire to use in the vineyard when they are out there. I'm getting pretty excited about bringing them home.

Happy Father's Day

Today is the perfect day to say THANKS to my dad for flying all the way up here from Florida to help us plant this vineyard. It's backbreaking work to plant hundreds of vines, and water them in, and attach the grow tubes, and mow the alleys, and pull weeds, and on and on and on. Dad, thanks so much for being willing to put in the work to help us get this off the ground. We could have done it without you but it would have been a whole heckuvalot harder.

Just remember, in a few more years, we'll be harvesting rather than planting, and that is a whole lot easier. Thanks Again!!!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Grape Blog Launch! Finally

Today, after much procrastinating, I'm finally launching the Bluff Creek Vineyards Grape Blog. I'll be blogging on what is going on in the vineyard throughout the growing season, and I'll probably stray off on a few tangents here and there as well. I'll try to circle back if I go too far astray because I want this blog to be mostly about GRAPES! Cold Climate Grapes. This is definitely Not Napa. We have our own set of conditions here that make growing grapes quite a challenge, but it can be done. There are lots of people in Iowa, and throughout the Midwest doing the same thing. Little by little, Midwest Grapegrowers are chipping away at the perception that the only things that grow in Iowa are corn and soybeans.

Right now we are smack in the middle of the 2009 growing season. We are way ahead of schedule in terms of rainfall. It reminds me a lot of last spring when we had the horrendous flooding in Iowa. We worked around it last year and my folks came up from Florida to help plant, and we managed to get a week of perfect weather. We planted about 700 vines, just in time for a lot more rain. The vines literally grew like weeds. I think we had to hand water twice last year, Mother Nature took care of the rest.

We had so much fun last year that we decided to do it all again this year. My folks showed up in the first week of May and we again got a week of perfect weather and planted about 830 more vines. We now have roughly two acres of vines planted. In 2008 we planted two cultivars, a red and a white. We planted seven rows about 400 feet longof the red grape, Cynthiana. We expect this grape to do well here, in spite of the fact that we are on the very northern edge of it's hardiness range. It has a long growing season but we have good southern exposure and long, hot summers, which should help it to thrive. It's an American grape with tons of potential for making a deep red, full-bodied wine. It's also very disease resistant (more on that later). It's grown extensively in Missouri and they refer to it passionately as the Cabernet of the Ozarks. I like that! It has actually been designated their official State Grape. We also planted a grape called Traminette last year. We planted four rows of it. It makes a terrific white wine that can be finished sweet or semi-dry. I think it is my favorite hybrid grape, in terms of wine potential. One of it's parents is Gewurztraminer and the wine is very similar to that, although maybe a little less spicy and a little less aromatic. It should do well here in all but the coldest winters.

In 2009, we planted 12 additional rows, six more rows of Traminette (did I tell you I like this grape?) and five rows of a grape called Sabrevois (Sah-braeh-vwah), which is an Elmer Swenson cultivar. It is grown extensively in Canada and is a red winegrape. We also put in an additional row of 8 different cultivars, 12 plants each, to experiment with, and determine what we might like to grow on the rest of our acres. We have roughly 40 acres of land but much of it is either oak timber or riparian buffer, and of course house. We haven't mapped it out with a GPS yet but think we should be able to cover about 8 acres in vines. Our plan is to sell the grapes to wineries initially, of which there are over 70 now in the state, but eventually we plan to open our own winery.