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Farm Fresh Blog
Friday, January 29 2016
The Not Ready For Prime Time Players are still doing a fine job of keeping predators on their side of the fence at night and all I need to do is step out into the barn aisle to find out why. They sound enormous. I mean, really, freaking, enormous. Yes, I know they're big, but deep-throated barks come out of them like sonic booms.
Yes, that's a full size picnic table. Yes, he's that big now. Yes, he will be only 8 months old next week.
And they sound particularly loud right now. Perhaps it's just an environmental anomaly. The temperature, humidity, and terrain is just right so that sound is amplified and bounces off our very small mountain. We get an echo around here, particularly in the fog, and Judge spends a lot of time barking at the dog on the mountain who mocks him. He lets out a thunder bark, and the Dog In The Dark barks back at him, so naturally, he has to answer the mocking dog. This goes on for hours while Briar and Jury sleep. (Reason #57 for not living in a subdivision.)
Thursday, January 28 2016
The sheep that made The Big Cut and are still in the barn are bagging up now so it's time to watch them a little closer. This will involve a lot more dog-juggling since the Anatolians are still big puppies and certainly Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players during lambing season.
The cattle are dropping calves now too. Although I would prefer giving them the run of the ranch, because of the predator load here, we want the calves up and moving fast before we turn this group back out. Until all calves are born and at least a month old, they'll have to stay near the house. This gives us the chance to monitor birthing and to have daily interaction with new calves. It certainly makes them easier to handle later. Not only does this pay off with the calves we keep, but calves that are used to being handled by humans don't freak out as much when they are sold and move on. Our calves are used to seeing humans, dogs, horses, and livestock chutes before they leave here. This means less stress on them. They then eat better and have better immune systems after they are sold. This gives them an edge over the calves who never saw humans before they were weaned in a cattle trailer on the way to the sale barn.
It's winter now and time to think about spring gardening and chickens. Yes, it's time to start hauling sheep and cow manure to the garden site for composting. The beauty of starting from scratch is that I get to plan my garden and my chicken coop a hundred times before I finally get to work. I'm sure that despite all this time and planning, I will still end up throwing up something at the last minute. That's life. That's me. BUT - here's the plan:
Imagine a chicken coop in the center of a yard, like the hub of a wheel. Small runs radiate out from the coop, separated by fences like the spokes of a wheel. The chickens don't have access to all the runs at once. Some of the runs are actually parts of the garden which the chickens will have partial access to. The full time chicken runs will later become highly fertile garden sites for the following years! The plan is just to rotate the runs, but leave the coop in place in the center. And ALL of this will be surrounded by the dogs at night, so the chickens will have the benefit of the Livestock Guardian Dogs without actually living with the dog in the pen. (Just in case Briar remembers that the next door neighbor's chickens tasted good.)
Not only must the chicken pen be behind bars, but the entire garden must be behind bars. In one afternoon sheep and goats can eat an entire garden. I have also seen what a Labrador can do to corn plants. It ain't pretty, people. It ain't pretty. Who would think a Labrador likes corn on the cob on the stalk?
At the moment, none of this has been built yet. It's all just a dream floating in my head, awaiting concrete plans, and a Home Depot gift card. So here's a shout out to all my gardeners and chicken folks, whatdaya think? Any ideas?
Thursday, January 21 2016
For the past week we've been caught in a whirlwind of events. I've been a performer in a desperate circus of too many things happening at the same time. You couldn't call me a juggler, because that implies that I could momentarily hold one object while the other was in the air. This week was more like being a plate-spinner, since I had to keep each plate moving in balance or it would crash to the ground.
This weekend was the start of The Big Livestock Show where we were showing dairy goats. The show site is about two hours from our ranch. This meant three days of rising before the sun was up and coming home well after the sun went down. At the same time we had the Fiasco Of Pregnant Ewe Lambs, heavily pregnant cattle, and new calves that need to be protected from coyotes. These cows must be kept close to the house. That means we have to haul feed to them twice a day. It made for long days.
Sometimes it takes a hurricane to make you to sort out your priorities. This was Hurricane Week. I was forced to look into the future and decide which path I planned to take. The painful decision was made to sell the ewe lambs with full disclosure that they were pregnant. It wasn't my fault, but it was my problem. In addition to that lot we also sold some more adults and my spring crop of lambs. This effectively gutted my meat sheep numbers. I kept an old ewe (Ma), and a daughter of a favorite ewe that I lost this summer (Chuck), and a friend for them (Flower Pot). This was the only sentimental decision I allowed myself.
Raising Dorper sheep is profitable, but trying to raise Dorper sheep at the same time I am also raising Nubian goats and adding fiber sheep was too much. It was time to sit back and decide where I wanted to focus. My goal for the Navajo Churro sheep is to use their wool to weave saddle pads and cinches. While it's tempting to breed them now, I don't have to in order to achieve my goals. Since I'm most interested in spinning the wool, I can just buy a few more nice ewes to round out my fiber flock.
The Nubian goats have secured their spot in the barn. Although they are high-maintenance divas, they are also delightful members of the family, and they give plenty of milk which is used for soap. Profit from soap sales far exceed profit brought in from the sale of Dorper lambs. (and no one dies) It would take a lot more dorper sheep to equal the profit margin of just a few Nubian goats. I weighed all this and decided that instead of starting over again and rebuilding my dorper flock, I would just focus on the Nubians and the Navajo Churro.
Friday, January 15 2016
Her name was Smudge.
I tend to be a soft-hearted sort and want to save them all, forgetting that the money I spend today on an animal that won't make it anyway, cannot be spent later on a animal that will survive. Other Half is more practical. He's been ranching most of his life. In addition to that, he can be brutally honest with everyone, including himself. Most of the time I don't like his bluntness because it flies in the face of the warm and fuzzy blanket I like to wrap myself in. I've seen enough Death in this world, and if I can cheat the bastard just one more time, I will. Another reason I don't like taking Other Half's less than politically correct advice is because he's my arrogant husband, and frankly, I hate that smug look on his face when he knows that I've realized that he's been right all along about something. Ladies, am I right here? Can I get an amen?
That said, if I want to be truly honest with you and myself, suffering is worse than death, and so is the heavy weight of responsibility when knowing that your actions, or lack of actions, caused their suffering. This leads us to the last 48 hours.
Last fall I bought some ewe lambs to rebuild my Dorper sheep flock. Unfortunately some of these lambs turned out to be pregnant. This was a case of babies having babies. My vet has pointed out that I should have given them a drug to induce labor just to clean them out, but not only do I not like to mess with nature, I thought they were too young to be bred in the first place. I was wrong on both counts. I hadn't even planned to breed them myself until next spring.
I knew I was in trouble when I looked around and realized I had seven ewe lambs pregnant. I had noted they were smaller than average. Now I know its because all their nutrition was going to developing fetuses. By the time I saw we had a problem, the only thing I could think to do was wait it out and hope my babies could have their babies. It is my nature. I always want to give life a chance. What I failed to take into account was the suffering.
The first ewe, my favorite little Smudge, went into labor on Wednesday. Not only was this a case of a baby having a large baby, but it was a horrendous butt-first breech birth at the vet clinic. The baby died within minutes of her birth. She also had a mouth so deformed that she wouldn't have been able to nurse anyway. The vet recommended aborting every one of the remaining ewe lambs. Here is where things get dicey. To do so flew in the face of my "let nature sort it out/give life a chance" mentality, and it wouldn't save my ewe lambs the labor of a late term delivery anyway.
Other Half then also pointed out the cost. I was facing losing 7-14 babies plus their mothers and facing a hefty vet bill for each delivery. The vet assured me that if I chose not to abort that I would be in the clinic for every delivery anyway. Not only could I be out the price of the ewe lamb, but I would also have vet bills double the value of the ewe lamb. If I lost the ewe and the babies it was a triple whammy. Other Half saw that pretty quickly. I still refused to acknowledge it. Even though I didn't breed them at such a young age, I still felt responsible for this little group of girls. Other Half's advice was to sell them for slaughter before they went into labor. My mind vomited at the thought.
I chewed on it all night. I prayed on it.
"God, please take this choice out of my hands. I don't want this responsibility. Make it easy for me."
Be careful what you pray for.
The next morning I started calling sheep friends for advice. Some were more diplomatic than others about my options, but there were still only three - either send them to a humane slaughter or induce labor and hope for the best knowing that I would lose some or all of the lambs and possibly lose their mothers, or let nature take its course, knowing that I would still lose some or all of the lambs and possibly their mothers.
I didn't like the options but if I sold them for slaughter then at least I could spare them the suffering and spare myself the massive vet bills which my vet had already assured me would happen. A fourth option arose in which a friend of friend, who is familiar with sheep and goats, might choose to take the chance and buy them. Since he had no problems with shooting and butchering a ewe that wasn't having a smooth delivery it was a viable option. It would give the others a chance.
I still hated all the above choices and felt like I was somehow betraying the ewes in their time of need. The reality was that if I had not bought them as breeding ewe lambs, these girls would have gone to slaughter with their brothers anyway. But still . . .
The decision was made for me last night when I came home. Because we'd been helping friends work cattle, we'd been gone most of the day. It was dark and as the sheep filed into the barn, I counted. Smudge was missing. I started out with a flashlight but I didn't need it. Briar led me straight to the body of the ewe lamb. Without the dog it would have taken me forever to find her under the tarped hay. I stared at her stiff body in the beam of the flashlight and remembered how she laid her head in my lap and pushed so hard as the vet wrenched that baby from her. At the end of all that suffering was a dead baby, a dead ewe, and a big vet bill, and I was staring at six more times of that.
In the light of day when you are watching a sweet ewe lamb chew her cud, it's easy to vow that you will give each girl a chance on her own, but when you are standing in the dark staring at the bloodstained, swollen rump of your 'pie in the sky' decision, you are reminded that suffering is worse than death. Other Half refuses to eat lamb, and we don't have the freezer space, or I'd butcher them all for the dogs. We made the decision to either sell the whole lot of them to the man who wants to chance it and butcher anyone having a bad delivery, or sell the whole lot to be butchered.
Be careful what you pray for. God can make your decision a little easier. I gave that some thought as I stood in the dark staring a dead ewe and a despondent Livestock Guardian Dog. Briar doesn't understand a lot of things, but she understands suffering, and she understands death.
Wednesday, January 13 2016
Lesson For The Day: In case of Zombie Apocalypse, cut the Labrador from the team and take the Anatolian to war with you.
Yesterday an early morning run to the vet delayed morning chores until after my return. To set the stage, Other Half was in town at a class, Dear Friend Clyde was in the same class, and Dear Friend Kim was at work. I had just returned to the house and gotten off the phone with my mother when my little adventure began, so I was, to put it bluntly, on my own. No one was even gonna be looking for my body for at least 4 hours.
And so it began:
Chores on a farm are much like tipping that first domino in the row. Once tipped, there is no going back, things must flow forward in the sequence.
Step One: Release the Livestock Guardian Dogs from the Night Pens. They then run around the yard and play with the Civilized Dogs (I use this term loosely. These are the Inside Dogs who do not pee in the house or randomly attack their cell mates.) The release of dogs heralds the start of Feeding Time, which any rancher worth his salt will tell you, must be run quickly and in the right sequence or there is hell to pay. The sheep and goats begin screaming their fool heads off. This tips off the cattle in the front pasture that Feeding has begun and they begin calling. Horses in the forest are then alerted and start to wander up.
Step Two: Get hay wagon loaded with alfalfa and begin dolling it out to small livestock so they will shut up.
We never got to Step Two.
Just as I was thinking about reaching for the tongue of the wagon, I was hit from behind, just about knee level, by a Labrador Retriever doing at least 60 mph which is well over the posted speed limit for the barn aisle. He sped off as I did a Triple Oxer Double Backflip Somersault With A Twist and landed on my back on the little metal wagon which quickly jettisoned up the saddle rack and dumped my body on the cold concrete with a thud. And a bounce. Like a Hit & Run Driver the Labrador had no Driver License, no insurance, and no intention of returning to the scene. (He probably had warrants too.)
I laid on the cold concrete trying to assess the damage. Since I hit my back pretty hard on the rail of the wagon and then hit the floor hard enough to knock the senses out of me, for a little while, I couldn't even move. I just laid there, mentally cussing the dog, and marveling at how randomly and quickly shit happens. As a crime scene investigator, I've seen too many dead people lying on the cold concrete. Trust me. None of them planned it. My mind flirted ahead to the confused crime scene investigator trying to figure out what happened if I died there. No one, NO ONE, would figure out that I was assaulted by a Labrador prior to my demise.
And so there I was, stuck on the cold floor, wondering if I was paralyzed or gonna die, when someone laid down beside me, stretching his warm body the full length of mine and licking my face. Judge, the seven month old Anatolian puppy had found me. His brother, Jury, stood over my head, and the two of them began nervously licking my face. This jump started me and I reached out to hug Judge closer. Arms and fingers work. Check. Toes wiggle. Check. Sharp pain in back but limbs work. Major progress. (Those Readers who have horses are very familiar with this check list.)
So although everything appeared to be working, the pain in my back kept me on the floor while puppies the size of Great Danes tried frantically to make it all right again. That's when I burst out in tears, not because of the pain, but because I was just so touched by my Disney Dogs. Judge pressed his body along mine and begged me to be normal again. The Border Collie girls zoomed worried circles at my head, wringing their hands, and trying to get past the Anatolians for a Nurse Check of their own. The Anatolians weren't having it. Jury kept blocking them away while Judge resumed his attempts to get me vertical by means of licking my face. That's when the biggest, hairiest white legs sauntered into view. Briar had arrived.
She looked down at me and said, "What have we here?"
The Anatolians were beside themselves, clearly relieved that someone above their rank and pay grade had arrived on the scene. Briar would know what to do. Her first order of business was to remove the Border Collies. The Borders danced back when she growled but not far enough and I had visions of her killing both of my little black & white dogs. This would really have confused authorities finding my body.
"Why is she dead and why are there two dead Border Collies beside her?"
So in my best "I'm still alive and I'm still in charge" voice I announced as such to the immense relief of everyone, including me. Using Judge and Jury as crutches, I hauled myself vertical and did another Health Check. Everything did appear to still be working. Just in case I died later from a head wound, I called Dear Friend Kim and Dear Friend Cathy to update them on my dogs and my gymnastic skills.
While I finished chores Judge walked beside me and Briar walked behind me. Jury puttered nearby but cast an eye over regularly. Their normal playtime was shot. I don't think it had ever occurred to them that The Ultimate Authority/The Commander In Chief might be helpless and need them.This blew their minds. Frankly it hadn't occurred to me either. I expect 'Lassie' things from the Border Collies, their behavior didn't surprise me too much. And the reality is that I shouldn't have been surprised by the Livestock Guardian Dogs. Hellllooooooo.... they're GUARDIAN dogs. They saw a situation and stepped up to bat.
I gave this some thought as I tossed hay to the cattle. The Labrador was hunting rats in the cactus, oblivious to everything, while the Livestock Guardian Dogs followed me with worried eyes. Yep, I'm sold. I will always have these dogs. Even if I didn't have livestock I would have an Anatolian Shepherd. These dogs make me feel safe. They are big enough, and strong enough, and most importantly, they are bred to recognize a problem and solve it themselves. So what if they are strong-willed, gigantic horses with a mind of their own who eat you out of house and home? When you've fallen and you can't get up, that horse of a dog is pretty damned important to you. And so while the Border Collie may be able to retrieve your cell phone and call 911 or race to the neighbors and say "Mommy's in the well," the Livestock Guardian Dog will climb in the well with you and he is strong enough to carry you out.
Monday, January 11 2016
'Men have forgotten this truth,' said the fox. 'But you must not forget it.
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.'
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Because I live with a Mustang, I've given a lot of thought to this quote. Something is wild, living on its wits and the elements, and then man interferes. Once captured, man must assume the responsibility for its care. When we bought Tiny at the 2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover, his trainer, Tom Hagwood, had carefully molded a wild mustang into a Champion domesticated horse who had chosen to walk with and carry a man as his partner in life.
Here on our ranch, Tiny has a foot in both worlds. He is both a cowhorse, and a wild mustang. Although our ranch is not big, the terrain is varied and wild enough to give a horse the illusion that he is free, and frankly, depending upon which side of the creek he's on during a heavy rain, he is wild, using his own wits for survival.
Our small band of geldings live loose on the ranch and they choose to come in each morning. If there is work to be done, we keep Tiny and a friend up for a few hours, or a few days, but then they are released to return to their lives as semi-wild horses again. The ranch itself is untamed enough that it's entirely possible to completely lose four horses in its bowels. I know, because I've looked for them in the dark. I don't know where they go, but they are swallowed by the night, and each morning they amble up as docile as any plow mule.
One day last week they didn't come in. The water in the creek wasn't up, but recent rains had left sand deposits on the banks that were so deep we couldn't navigate the crossing with a four wheeler. I called for them but the cold wind threw my shouts back at me unheard. I could choose to wade across the creek and hike the game trails through the forest in hopes of getting to a place where they could hear me, or I could take their alfalfa back to the barn and give it to them when they came up on their own. I was tempted to take the hike with the cougar and coyotes, but something in the back of my mind stopped me. I don't own these horses. They own themselves. They can take care of themselves. Give them the credit they deserve for that. With Tiny at the helm, they are surviving just fine here. Hiking in the dark would just have been a way to ease my worry. The horses didn't really need the alfalfa.
Sure, I care for them, but living in this place has changed my outlook a bit on the concept of animal ownership. Unlike the calves, or the sheep, or the goats, the horses are not helpless. Each night they must deal with predators, the weather, and the terrain itself. Each morning that they come shuffling in, they have survived a night before without falling off a cliff, stepping in an armadillo hole, being attacked by a cougar, or drowning in the creek. These horses do not live pampered lives in stalls, snug at night in fitted blankets. They put their asses to the wind and shelter the storm. Even when given the choice to come into a stall, they choose instead to stand in the pen outside the stall and stare into the darkness as the freezing rain settles on their backs.
They choose to be free, and free from a sheltered life is still free. Despite this they also choose to be with us. They choose to hang their heads into the barn aisle and interact with us. This is not only true for the domestic horses, but for Tiny as well.
It is clear that we are not Tiny's captors, we are his friends. This big red horse genuinely likes humans. Tiny is easily caught when he sees a halter. He lowers his head for a bridle, and does not at all mind participating in ranch work or trail rides. And when the job is done, he is just as happy to shuffle off into the forest again where he can believe that he is wild once more.
Horses are different from cattle. A show cow very quickly reverts to a 'touch me not' creature who comes to feed but stays just far enough away that you can't touch her. A cow knows it is neither pet nor partner, and it is quickly absorbed back into the herd, but the horses made a different choice. The horses chose to stay. So although I feed them and care for them because they are tamed, I do not own them, for they are not property. The word denotes a lack of respect for their choices. They are not tools, not a saddle, nor a shovel. Like the dogs that ages ago cast their own vote to stay with man, these horses are our partners in life.
Tuesday, January 05 2016
The holidays have passed and now for most of the world, the vacation has ended and they're back to work.
But if you have a ranch, then there was no vacation from work.
And if ranching is your passion, it isn't work. My hope for you, Dear Reader, is that you find your passion, so that every day you live a life where you don't need a vacation.
Monday, January 04 2016
After the bleating of the sheep has lulled to a comfortable chewing, the dogs and I take a walk just as the sun begins to climb its way into the blue sky. This morning routine serves both to exercise dogs after a long cold night, and allow them to re- fortify the perimeter with a wall of urine. Make no mistake, this ritual is more than a simple walk. Great detail is paid to reading the events of the night before. This is the Canine Facebook.
With the sheep still munching in the barn, this is a time for the dogs to hunt and to play games which keep them in peak physical condition.
They sharpen their skills on each other, and tag team the Border Collie in a frightening shadow of a kill.
We end our walk to return back to kennels for a raw breakfast of chicken or beef - the bounty after the hunt. I watch an entire chicken leg quarter disappear with a few casual crunches and marvel at the power of jaws that arguably belong to a Elementary School Student. It is easy to forget the Anatolians are only 7 months old, as they are bigger than the other dogs, and are already earning their keep as Livestock Guardian Dogs.
If there is ever any doubt about whether these dogs are necessary, one need only look to the ground. The proof is in the tracks lurking below the house.
Friday, January 01 2016
I've never been one to make New Year's resolutions. Why set myself up for failure? I'm a weak-willed person. That's my favorite part about me. Let's just go ahead and accept that if the lemon pie is in the refrigerator, I'm gonna eat it. If I have the option to lie in bed and read a book, or jog, I'm gonna read that book. I might read a book about jogging, or about a jogger eaten by a cougar, but you get the point. New Year's resolutions are lost on me.
I'm not likely to start doing yoga because it's January 1. I'm more likely to start doing yoga because I'm fat and can't reach reach my stirrup anymore. Now THAT'S more incentive than a date on the calendar. Resolutions are for goal-oriented people. I'm not that. Mine is not a dedicated paddling down the rapids of life, mine is more a lazy canoe ride downstream. From time to time I dip my oar in the water with a half-hearted attempt to change direction, but most of the time, my boat follows the current. Sometimes the flow takes me into the rapids, but instead of furious paddling, I just keep my hands in the boat and hope to stay upright.
The current has taken me places I never would have planned for myself, but through it all, I never stopped being myself. Know who you are, and as Shakespeare would say, "To thine own self be true."
When I was 8, I was a child of the forest who dreamed of horses and writing books. I don't expect much to change when I'm 80. If you like who you were when you were 8 years old, why beat yourself up every January 30 because you couldn't maintain the goals you set for yourself on January 1?
Who you are is not about your weight, your money, your wrinkles, your job, or what other people think of you. Who you are is about how you touch the world around you. Do you bring goodness? Can you be a blessing to others? Can you lift someone up when they're down? Those things aren't numbers on a scale or a paycheck.
So perhaps the new year isn't a time for making promises but a chance to decide if you are being true to the 8 year old inside of you.