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Farm Fresh Blog
Thursday, April 30 2015
Photographing dead people was my bread & butter for many years. You can actually get kinda artistic with it. More than once we joked about making a Crime Scene calendar for the unit where we selected our best shots of the year to submit. I distinctly recall one of my favorite shots was a picturesque view of the bayou winding its way to the skyline of the city with the afternoon sun behind the buildings. It was a Chamber Of Commerce shot. And if you looked really closely, you could see a body floating in the bayou. It was some of my best work.
(No, I can't show you.)
That said, there are a lot of things more fun than taking pictures of dead people, for instance, taking pictures of soap. I know. I know. The lighting is better. The smell is better. You can rearrange things the way you want. I mean really, what's not to like?
One of the best parts of selling soap is photographing the individual fragrances. Frankly, one bar pretty much looks like another with slight variations in color or shape, but I like to compose a still life to represent each fragrance. I'm going to have to start over again with many of them because I lost the laptop that had the original photographs and all I had left of some of those shots are grainy photographs that I took with my cell phone. (But you still get the idea!)
Take just plain soap,
and jazz it up with some props!
Rosemary Mint -
Cucumber Mint -
Barbed Wire -
Lavender & Oatmeal -
Sweetgrass, Cedar, & Sage -
Fred, the garden gargoyle, helped me take these shots for my Dragon's Blood fragrance:
Just clean soap porn! Can't you just smell it?
I'm really thankful for Clover, my first dairy goat, who introduced me to the world of making goat milk soap and a different angle on ranching. When I was raising meat goats, the babies were sold and probably eaten. (which can be a downer) You raised a baby or two from one mother and your profit was just the price of the baby. With dairy goats, not only can you sell the babies, but you can make much more money through the sale of dairy products or soap. They require a lot more input and care for your profit, but the profit is greater and the time spent is far more pleasant.
Monday, April 27 2015
Sometimes a bittersweet milestone is a hurdle that you expect, like when you carry a cardboard box out the door of a job that has defined you for years. Other times, that milestone is really a tombstone that you unexpectedly stumble over. You catch your breath, and fight back a tear. Yesterday I stumbled over a Tombstone Milestone.
I was making soap and reached into the back of the refrigerator to pull out a Mason jar of thawed goat milk when I read the label: Clover 3-7-14
It hit me like a punch in the stomach. I dug around in the back of the refrigerator. Nope. No more jars. I ran to the chest freezer, and like a four year old flinging toys out of a toy box, I tossed frozen food around in a vain search for another jar. Nothing. The stark reality was there before me. There was no more milk. No more Clover.
She was my very first dairy goat. We learned to milk together. We learned to make soap together.
Clover invited me into the wonder world of dairy goats.
And then I lost her to parasites. Nasty bastards. But as long as there was a stash of mason jars in the freezer, I still had a part of her. Until yesterday.
I almost didn't use it, but what's the point of keeping a jar in the freezer where it can break, so I soaped it up. In my mind that batch is Clover Reserve - Very Special Soap. I will keep a bar for myself. Maybe I'll put it in a shadow box with her picture.
Clover was a special goat. She was my Humming Goat.
Thursday, April 23 2015
The Farm Collie
This week the boys went to the ranch while I stayed home to tend the farm. Because we have the cattle locked away from the ranch house the wild oat grass was so tall it was over the dogs' heads. Other Half and Son spent a good bit of time mowing. There is plenty of grass on the rest of the ranch too, but this is "special" grass and the cattle would love nothing more than to get into it. We don't want them to discover it even exits, because if they do they will destroy fences to reach it, and then hang out around the house, no doubt damaging a $30,000 water retention system and scratching their asses on the window unit air conditioners. The very idea of losing 20,000 gallons of fresh water, or window units being ripped out by itchy, shedding cattle sends me over the edge, therefore, we are quite vigilant about closing all gates that might allow cows access to the ranch house.
Until yesterday . . .
Other Half drove the truck down in the meadow below the house. Since he was by himself, and the dogs aren't good at opening gates, and the cattle were nowhere to be seen, he assumed he could safely leave the gate opened so he could drive out later. After all, he wasn't going to be long.
He was down at the bottom of the pasture when he saw cattle emerging from the forest and trotting toward the gap in the fence. There was absolutely no way he could beat the cattle to the gate in a pickup truck. Other Half looked around for Trace but only saw Cowboy. Trace was nowhere to be seen. He cussed the dog for wandering off and went to stop the cows himself. As expected, they beat him to the gate. But unexpectedly, they didn't enter the gap. The whole group was crowded at the opening, but no one was brave enough to enter -
because there in the gap was a little red dog with piercing yellow eyes.
Trace had apparently assessed the situation as it was unfolding, raced away from the truck, ran 30 acres uphill, and then hooked it across the tree line to emerge at the gap before the cattle could arrive. And he did all this without Other Half even seeing him.
Once again I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a good ranch dog. I'm not talking about a dog that sits in the kennel waiting for you to practice the sport of herding. I'm talking about a real ranch dog. I'm talking about a dog that sits in the truck and watches everything that goes on around him. Only when they know what is normal, can they know what is abnormal. These dogs aren't Lassie, and they aren't Rin Tin Tin, but they are highly intelligent and they've been bred to work closely with ranchers. Trace isn't exceptional, he's just a normal farm collie with little to no formal training. Imagine how handy dogs with formal training are if they get to go everywhere with you!
This week Other Half helped one of our neighbors get out of the mud and found himself driving the guy's tractor. He climbed up into the enclosed cab and discovered a Border Collie inside! Sister had been in the tractor with Richard. Sister is always by Richard's side. I don't think I've ever seen him without her. One of the reasons why these dogs are so handy is because like Sister and Trace, they are always there, watching, studying, and waiting - waiting to be needed. That's what sets the farm collie apart. A dog like that isn't created in a kennel. It's not created sitting at the house. It's created in the truck beside you.
Wednesday, April 22 2015
After weeks of almost daily rains here, I have become a member of that tribe. Ours is a life of mud, where you must wear rubber boots just to walk to the back yard, and the dogs must be hosed off before being allowed inside the house. Three of the five outside dog runs have flooded, leaving only two raised concrete kennels. This means two dogs to a kennel when I leave the house, and no one wants to bunk with Aja because she's a loud-mouth who poops in the kennel and then trots through it. Although the kennels are covered, a driving rain coming in at an angle leaves the dog who doesn't fit into the dog house very wet. Ask Lily.
Except for short free-play time in the yard, the goats are living in the barn. It's dry, but dusty, and not an ideal place for baby lungs to grow. They think they want into the yard, until they get there and discover that it is as wet as it was the last time they demanded to come out but then stood in a dry spot beside the gate calling me in hopes that like Moses, I could part the Red Sea and give them dry passage.
Despite all the rain the cats appear to have adapted well. Being feral, unlike the goats, the cats don't expect me to solve their problems. They deal with it and so instead of complaining, they become masters of ingenuity. They live in and around the barn and have developed a series of catwalks on barn roofs, trees, and the dried top edges of a deep ruts in the pasture left when I drive the mule out to feed cattle. I really admire them. Unlike the cattle, who suffer in silence, or the goats, who complain about every wretched moment, the cats silently adapt.
So you can imagine who badly I felt when it happened. What happened? Well, I had one of those moments you wish you could take back, where you do something without thinking and as soon as it happens, your mind extrapolates the result at warp speed, and you instantly regret your actions, but are powerless to stop the chain of events once set in motion.
It happened that I was checking on goats and noticed that someone had pooped in the water bucket, as goats do. Little soggy cocoa puffs were floating at the top, like a twisted Halloween carnival version of bobbing for apples. The goats were busy eating so I opened the stall door, snatched up the bucket, and slammed the door again before someone decided the world outside the stall was better than the feed in the trough. Without another thought, I slung the contents of the bucket out the barn door like a slop jar. My bucket had reached its apex in flight, the point of no return, when I glanced out the doorway, and saw one of the barn cats sitting on a dry patch of earth with her back to the impending doom.
Despite my whispered pleas of "No! No! Nononononononooooooooo!" I could not recall the arc of water as it dropped in slow motion onto the unsuspecting feline.
Despite my profuse apologies the poor cat had no clue where the assault originated. She scanned the roof top and the heavens with an accusing eye. Hmmmmmm. . . I'm not proud of what I did next.
I just went with it. She thought God had smacked her with more water from the heavens, and so I just went with it. Since I was not a suspect, or even a Person Of Interest, I disappeared into the barn and let God take the blame. He has broad shoulders. On the other hand, if a large bucket of water comes out of nowhere and lands on my head, I'll be sure to listen for God giggling.
Monday, April 20 2015
"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."
Border Collies are known to be quirky. People less understanding, call them weird. I prefer to use the above quote. Perhaps we just don't hear the music they hear. Perhaps they are in a world of Dr Seuss and Horton really does hear a Who.
So when Mesa began chasing invisible things in the yard, my first thought was that she might be chasing shadows, but her movements were too quick, too erratic, and often over a mud puddle. I soon realized that Horton really did hear a Who, or rather she saw one.
Mesa's newest sport is chasing tiny flying insects that are so small I cannot even see them unless the lighting is just right. She spins and pounces and snaps in her hunt of the elusive "no see 'em."
I watch her in the yard, darting here and there at apparently nothing and I think about the lesson I can take from this. Don't judge others. Perhaps they can see beyond us. Perhaps they can hear the music.
Tuesday, April 14 2015
On a spinning, drunken carousel, Mesa, Dillon, and Aja continue their panting, grunting, growling orbit. Locked away from the fun, Ranger barks orders behind a closed door. The rain pours down outside as frightened Cowboy and Trace huddle in a dark bedroom while Other Half sleeps.
The house smells like a kennel. A fine spray of mud has misted the walls and I've seen cleaner carpet in crack houses. It is simply impossible to keep a house clean after two weeks of rain, so we pick and choose our battles. Today the battle is simply getting seven dogs exercised while more rain comes down outside.
I am thankful I was able to get the farm chores done without getting struck by lightning, but will readily admit to sending out a steady stream of prayers under my breath as I tossed out cattle feed. The dogs have taken a break but the floor of the house continues to shake under my feet as the thunder rolls outside.
And still it rains. Disconnected newscasters smile and tell us we need the rain. Really? Do they have to wear rubber boots just to walk out the door? Clearly they live in a different world, one where they are not hustling to juggle chores in the mud, before racing off to a full time job in a land of concrete.
Other Half and I talk more and more about retiring. It is a tempting dream in the mist that I reach for but cannot yet grasp. How much money is enough money? Like most Americans we are caught in a ludicrous gamble - we struggle to earn enough money today so that we can enjoy a life tomorrow. It is a gamble, and with each passing year, the odds change. Are we working ourselves into the grave before we can enjoy the life we have worked so hard for? Is the security of a paycheck worth this gamble?
Investment bankers would argue that we should stay and make more money to play the odds in the stock market, but I lean toward a different kind of stock market - the livestock market. As a person of faith, I tend to believe that God will allow the animals and the land that we have cared for for so many years to take care of us. For I believe there is more to wealth than figures on a piece of paper. Wealth is about good friends, and good health, and giving back, and having the time to enjoy it all. Wealth is not about having things, but enjoying the things we have.
Thursday, April 09 2015
Trace's minion is growing up. Mesa has a strong sense of self, and prefers to be with the Border Collies even though Cowboy hates her, and Lily just tolerates her. Trace seems to enjoy her company and Mesa can finally keep up with him.
I limit their time together because he is a troll, and she is already slightly bent toward the troll direction herself. She rages in her crate at meal time so badly that I've had to place a screen between kennels so she doesn't intimidate poor Ranger. She is Trace Jr. If she emerges as a full-fledged Troll Dog, I'd like to think it was genetics rather than modeling Trace's behavior. So although Mesa prefers to be a part of the Border Collie group, the bulk of her time in a pack is spent with Dillon and Ranger who model canine good citizenship. (Wow... I'm certainly scraping the bottom of the barrel to say that Ranger has canine good citizenship skills. Let's just say that he doesn't behave like a Troll, and leave it at that.)
So who wants to hang around with a tight@&$ like Lily when you could be riding with a Biker Boy like Trace?
And she does love to ride that bike.
Mesa is ready for a leather jacket and a studded collar cuz Sister wants to be a Biker Chick.
Tuesday, April 07 2015
Who else does this?
And here's the most baffling part. As the goat walked beside me, I couldn't help but think that she heels better than my Border Collies do. I know. God forgive me. I thought it. I was thankful that we didn't encounter any passing motorists, for even in our rural community a cop leading a goat down the highway at midnight might raise a few eyebrows.
I know why this happened. It happened because Other Half went out of town again. Drama always finds me when he's out of town. I had just arrived home from work and was moving goats from their outside pen to a stall inside the barn. They greeted me in the dark and everyone filed into the light except one. A big pregnant one. A big, big, very pregnant one.
I heard her calling me in the dark and mentally calculated her due date. Since her sister gave birth a week early the idea of her giving birth two weeks early wasn't outside the realm of possibility but it sent shivers down my spine. So I hustled everyone else into the barn and went back for her. There she was standing in the dark, calling to me - on the other side of the fence.
Somehow she had managed to go over, or under, or perhaps like a vampire, she turned herself into a wisp of smoke and blew through the fence. Nevertheless, we had a problem. She had managed to enter the yard of the rancher next door and although he wouldn't mind, he has a large pack of Black-Mouth Cur dogs that have been known to chew the ears off cattle, so I didn't even want to consider what they could do to a pregnant goat. Since the goat was still intact, I imagine she got in there after he had let his dogs run and returned them to their kennels for the night. That meant the only other occupant in the yard was an Australian Shepherd who would be okay with the goat, but who might bite me if I enter the yard to retrieve said goat. This is the part where it's nice to have neighbors who understand farm animals.
I called the rancher at midnight to inform him that my goat was trespassing. He offered to come outside and help. I told him I'd be happy if he just called the dog inside to keep it from biting me, but by the time I walked through my gate and down the highway to his gate, he already had my goat in hand, and she was happy to see me. The neighbor and I both noted the upside to having tame goats. Clipping a leash on a goat and walking it down the highway is a lot easier than trying to chase down a wild goat at midnight.
The most difficult part of the whole adventure was getting the goat back through the main gate while an overexuberant Livestock Guardian Dog was trying to give an unwilling goat a health inspection. Imagine trying to close and lock a gate while a large white dog is trying to sniff an appalled goat. Think Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat" trying to stick her nose up Audrey Hepburn's butt. It was a culture clash.
And that pretty much sums up my attempts to juggle a full time job and a farm - it's a culture clash.
Wednesday, April 01 2015
Dear Sarah: Awwww . . . THANK YOU! I'm so glad you like the blog! I think you were probably talking about the Border Collies since you said you were "off to read another chapter of Barbed Wire Borders" but just in case, I don't want to slight the other dogs. So we'll start with the first dogs the readers ever met.
First there was Alice the Bloodhound. Yes, Alice was registered. She came from Jerry Yelk's line of trailing hounds in Wisconsin. Impeccable working lines. Alice was a mantrailing dog. She was retired long before I began the blog, so the readers only knew Alice as a temperamental senior citizen. Alice died in 2011.
Kona, the Belgian Tervuren, was my Cadaver Dog. Yes, he was registered too. Kona came from Prelude Kennels in Wisconsin. I retired him from Human Remains Detection work when I became a Crime Scene Investigator because dead people on duty and off duty was a bummer. I later regretted that decision to stop training cadaver dogs. Nevertheless, he was happy to settle into the role of a farm dog. Kona passed away of kidney failure in 2010.
Ice, Kona's littermate, was actually a Narcotics Dog who belonged to dear friends in North Texas. They retired her early and re-homed her with me where she stayed for years until she and my Livestock Guardian Dog, Briar, could no longer live in peace. I then re-homed her with my mother where she has blossomed. Ice finally has what every Belgian wants - a person to care for 24/7. She is my mother's shadow, the Black Wolf.
Lily is my first Border Collie. Other Half found her in a feed lot in North Texas. Her breeder takes in 18 wheeler shipments of calves which he moves from green pasture to green pasture using horses and dogs. The point is to move the cattle without stress so they will gain as much weight as possible. His dogs are unregistered Border Collies. Because I wasn't interested in showing or breeding, I didn't care that Lily didn't have papers. I just needed her to work. This guy can't afford to get sentimental and keep dogs that don't work so I knew odds were in my favor that my pup would work. And she did. At the time I got Lily I was raising meat goats, and she proved herself to be invaluable on the farm.
Ranger was given to us by a friend. He also has no papers. Ranger is an Australian Cattle Dog, commonly called a Blue Heeler around here. He is a decent little cow dog when the job is pretty straightforward with no stress. Since this is rarely the case with cow work, we needed another stockdog who could think outside the box. This called for another Border Collie. When Kona died, we ordered a registered Border Collie from Glenn Christianson, a breeder in Oklahoma who does cow dog trials with his dogs. This puppy was Trace. Trace is a complicated little dog, but is tremendously talented, so despite having little or no formal training, he and Other Half seem to get their work done. Ranger, the Blue Heeler, retired to the couch where he just gets fat and supervises everyone else. Before Trace could be picked up from the breeder, Other Half found Cowboy, a stray Border Collie in Abilene. We didn't need another dog, but Cowboy needed a home, so we kept him. He is limited by a bad back injury he received when he tangled with a donkey before we got him. Considering the x-rays, I'm surprised he worked cattle as long as he did. Now he no longer works cattle, he just starts dog fights.
Because Trace is often lame, and Cowboy has a bad back, that leaves Lily to handle to bulk of the ranch work by herself. She is six now, still going strong, but cow work is hard, and it's dangerous. It takes a few years to get a cowdog ready so we needed to get one now before Lily retires. Although Trace has more natural talent, Lily has a work ethic that goes beyond talent, so we chose to go back to her breeder for our next puppy. Mesa is that puppy. Again, no papers, but generations of cowdogs behind her, so I felt confident that she would meet our needs.
When I first met Other Half, he was on his third German Shepherd patrol dog, Zena. Despite the fact that she was a police dog, Zena was a gentle soul. When she retired from police work, Zena was re-homed with the elderly mother of a friend who wanted an older dog to lie on the couch and watch television with her. They were a perfect match.
When Zena retired, she was replaced by Oli, a Belgian Malinois from Czechoslovakia. Oli was a predator deluxe. Juggling Oli and a farm was like trying to live with a tiger surrounded by sheep. After Oli blew a knee out and had to be medically retired, she actually increased her attempts to hunt and kill livestock. Her predatory behavior had reach the point that if we didn't place her in a home, we would have to put her down. She had already killed one sheep and maimed two others, and since she was no longer going to work, she now had 24 hours a day to study new ways to get over/under/through the fence to kill sheep. I couldn't have her killing all my farm animals. The dog had to go, one way or another. I'd never been in a position like that before. Oli was our responsibility, but so were the sheep and the goats, and eight other dogs in the household were not searching for ways to kill livestock. Thankfully, Triumphant Tails Rescue stepped in and took Oli. They then placed her in a home with an active couple where she happily became an active couch pet/jogging partner. My farm animals breathed a sigh of relief.
Other Half's newest patrol dog, Aja, is another German Shepherd. She is from Czechoslovakia too. Like Zena, Aja is a sweetheart. Although she is an active kickass police dog, she isn't a menace on the farm, like Oli. We hope his agency will retire Aja with us when he retires.
Briar is our Livestock Guardian Dog. There is much speculation about her parentage. According to her breeder Briar's mother is a Komondor and her father is a Great Pyrenees. According to the "Who's Ya Daddy?" DNA service, Briar is reportedly a Great Pyrenees/Malinois cross. I wouldn't put much faith in those tests. Regardless, Briar is an excellent Livestock Guardian Dog and like Lily, is a pillar on the farm.
And then there is Dillon. Dillon has no job. He is the only freeloader on the farm. Other Half will swear that Dillon has the most important job - he sleeps with us. Yes, he is a full-size Labrador and takes up as much room in the bed as 10 year old human, but Other Half insists that Dillon sleep in the bed. The truth is, he is quite cuddly. :) We got him because Other Half just had to have a duck dog. After all, he wasn't duck hunting because he didn't have a duck dog. Guess what? Dillon is one of the best bred duck dogs you can find. He has a fantastic pedigree, health checks, titles, the works. Dillon has been hunting twice.
So I decided to steal Dillon and start him in Cadaver work. He was clever, and so it was easy. The problem was that shortly after Dillon began training, all the Forensics work for our agency was taken out of the hands of the police department and moved under the umbrella of a civilian corporation, taking all the CSIs with it. As a police officer who was a crime scene investigator, I was already caught up in this tangled mess and decided it was no place for Dillon, so I quit training him in cadaver work. He will be happy enough just being a pet.
So there you go, Sarah. That's the straight skinny on the pack! I hope I answered your questions!