Raising Sheep, Shredding Mulch, and Creating Trails – Mother Earth News

Advice from our experts on harvesting high-quality fleece, integrating organic matter into gardens, and creating a trail.

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by Kat Ludlam

Carefully jacketing sheep can protect their fleece from sun-bleaching and staining.

Raise Sheep for Quality Wool

What are some ways to high-quality fleece from my sheep?

Breeding, feeding, and care make a big impact on the quality of fleece and thus the quality of the finished products. With some planning and care, you can raise sheep with excellent-quality wool and set your fleece apart from the rest.

Wool Breeds

Producing great wool starts with choosing the right breed of sheep. While all sheep grow wool, not all wool is created equal. Even among wool-specific breeds, the variation is immense. Before you purchase your breeding stock, research the different wool breeds and find the one that matches what you’re wanting for your finished product. Cross-breeding is also an option. Often, the best fleece comes from a cross of two breeds, bringing excellent qualities from each.

Consider whether you plan to hand-process your fiber or have a custom mill do it. If you want your fiber to be mill-processed, consider whether there is a mill that can process what you’re hoping for, and if there is, find where it’s located before you buy and breed your stock.

Once you’ve chosen a breed or breeds, you’ll need to find a breeder who has been selectively breeding for the attributes you want in your wool. Visit the breeder’s farm or sample their raw fleece to see if it’s what you want.

If selective breeding focuses on fleece, you can end up with all sorts of physical defects. Conformation and health must be taken into consideration when choosing stock.

Selective Breeding

Once you start breeding your stock, select your breeding groups with purpose. Breed the rams and ewes that will give you lambs with excellent fleece. Again, don’t forget to keep conformation and health in mind when breeding.

Feed Them Well

Well-fed sheep will produce a better fleece. Feed your rams and nonpregnant sheep with high-quality pasture or grass hay. Pregnant (after 90 days) and lactating ewes will need alfalfa and potentially grain to help keep their body condition up and their fleece healthy and growing while they’re gestating and feeding their lambs. Once a lamb is ready to start eating solids, they’ll need good alfalfa in addition to their mother’s milk so their bodies can grow and mature properly while also growing an amazing fleece. Don’t forget to provide mineral supplements and fresh, clean water.

What you feed your sheep can also affect the fleece because of what it physically puts on the fleece as the sheep are eating. The same is true with grazing them in seedy pastures or pastures that have plants that contain burrs. Many a fleece has been ruined by the vegetable matter (VM) that got into it while it was on the sheep.


One option for keeping your fleece cleaner is to jacket the sheep. Jacketing isn’t right for every situation, but when it is, it can improve the quality and value of the fleece. Jacketing prevents sun-bleaching of dark fleece and staining of light fleece, and it keeps out VM.

If you jacket your sheep, you’ll need to invest in 2 to 3 sizes for each sheep, as their wool grows through the season. You must change the jacket as the wool grows, or it can cause the wool to felt or even injure the sheep. You’ll also need different sizes to change out on your lambs as they’re growing. The jackets will wear out over time and need to be patched or replaced. Jacketing is an investment, but it can pay for itself with the quality of wool you’ll be producing. Check jackets twice a day, as they can get torn or tangled in fencing or the sheep’s legs. It’s not safe to jacket your sheep if you’re unable to check on the entire flock at least twice a day.

— Kat Ludlam

Close the Nutrient Loop with a Chipper-Shredder

What’s the best way to integrate organic matter into my garden and yard for a nutrient boost?

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Image by Steve Maxwell

A chipper-shredder will chop organic material into a manageable mulch for your garden.

The one thing that all yards and gardens have in common is plant growth. They produce a constant stream of new organic matter — grass, trees, shrubs, and vines. But what you do with that organic matter can make a big difference to your gardening success.

Our front yard started off as an open hayfield 35 years ago. Now, it’s a shaded grove of maples, oaks, pines, and locusts that I planted as seedlings. Taken together, these full-sized trees produce massive amounts of leaves and needles each year that we collect and use as mulch and soil amendments. It’s all about making use of the nutrients available from your yard and nearby land. But there’s one thing that makes it all much more effective — chipping and shredding.

To be most effective, any kind of plant matter needs to be chipped or shredded before it’s composted and laid on the soil as surface mulch. This is where a portable chipper-shredder makes all the difference.

Chipping tree branches makes them usable as mulch, and shredding loose material, such as leaves and grass clippings, makes them sit flat on the garden and resist blowing away. The surface mulching we do is the reason my wife and I are able to maintain as much garden area as we do without spending a whole lot of time weeding. In fact, we almost never have even a single weed come up in our heavily mulched perennial gardens, because we constantly maintain at least 3 inches of chipped and shredded mulch over all the soil all the time. Perennial flowers break through this mulch unaided each spring, and we plant annuals in the soil after we burrow down through the mulch to the dirt. But like I said, mulching materials need to be processed first for best results, and that’s where chipper-shredders make all the difference.

Chipper-shredders get the “chipping” part of their name from the way they produce small wood chips from branches and wood waste. “Shredding,” by contrast, is what these machines do to softer organic matter fed into them, including grass clippings, leaves, and trimmings from shrubs. Shredded materials are denser, they lay down better on the garden, and they store more compactly than unshredded loose materials until you’re ready to apply them.

More and more, municipal waste services won’t accept yard waste, or if they do, it’s only at certain times of year. That’s because yard waste is bulky, hard to handle, and takes up room unnecessarily in landfills. Burying yard waste is a huge environmental waste too. Chipper-shredders give you the flexibility to process your own yard waste as it’s produced, instead of having to stockpile unsightly waste until the municipal disposal option is available.

The kind of chipper-shredders that make sense for closing the nutrient loop have a gasoline engine that spins a completely enclosed circular blade. These machines are loud enough that I always wear hearing protection when I’m using one, and it’s natural to wonder about safety. The Champion model I use at my place is safer than you might think at first glance. Both branches and soft organic material feed in through large hoppers that keep your hands well away from the completely enclosed blade. It’s easy to be safe with a design like this if you follow the straightforward safety rules outlined in every chipper-shredder’s operations manual.

Think of a chipper-shredder as a nutrient-production machine and you’ll start to appreciate that there’s more to these tools than just keeping your yard neat and tidy. They can also keep valuable nutrients from slipping through your fingers.

— Steve Maxwell

Blaze New Trails on a Rural Property

How can I create a trail on my property that’s useful and beautiful?

In their simplest form, trails provide an accessible means of transport for the most frequent and commonly used transportation situations. They don’t need to be excessively manicured or expensively designed. Farmers should consider their typical uses to guide their design choices. Here are a few basic points you may want to consider when establishing or improving the trails of your property.

  1. Obtain a survey map of the property. Or, create a rough draft on draft paper. Once the property’s dimensions are scaled to paper, identify any major topographical features. Consider if these features may be used to full advantage when planning and routing the trails around them. These are areas that may have the greatest natural potential of enhancing the trail, aesthetically or otherwise.
  2. Identify the best location for a temporary or permanent worksite. Also identify any storage sites that may become necessary for tools, excess soil, or brush and tree cuttings.
  3. Predict accumulation. Before cutting down trees or brush, carefully plan where you can use or store the resulting piles of accumulation. The same applies to any accumulation of soil that’s dug up.
  4. Take care to remove roots as completely as possible. In some cases, with felled trees, leave 3 to 4 feet of tree stump to assist with pulling the trunks up completely in the clearing effort.
  5. If a road is required, dig out the roadbed and build it back up with leveled, sturdy layers of large rocks. Fill the large rocks in with smaller rocks to stabilize this sublayer of the road. Adding fill bond dirt prior to applying the road’s surface layer will offer the final layer of stability for the structure of the road.
  6. Carefully look at any areas that may cause flooding. You can address this by using gravity and slope angles to your best advantage. Pay attention to where you’ll direct and manage the accumulated water runoff. During heavy or constant rains, proper planning will pay off in how fast and how much water pools or drains through an effective drainage system. The proper slope angles will allow gravity to offer fast or slow drainage. Angle slopes for the best rain runoff, and dig an appropriate drainage system to handle the greatest capacity of water accumulation. Consult weather charts to get some idea of ​​your area’s average yearly rainfall.
  7. Add a “turn-around.” It’s also good to create additional maneuvering space in areas where vehicles will need to reverse course safely and efficiently.
  8. Consider making your own concrete stepping stones. You can use uniform or creatively shaped molds. You can customize the stones with colored stains and imprints. Making your own molds is an inexpensive way to add beauty, form, and function to a trail. An 80-pound bag of general sand-concrete mix should work well and will easily accept small glass chips or pebbles embedded as decoration.

Overall, your primary objective when establishing or improving trails should be to create a form and function. Use the property’s natural features to their best advantage when planning, routing, and orienting trails. As a nice touch, offer comfortable places of respite in the most ideal or even surprising places along a trail. The trail should be an experience unto itself. At the very least, when establishing or improving trails, a homestead owner can take the opportunity to add beauty, form, and function while increasing the property’s overall value.

— Monica White

Published on Jan 4, 2022


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