Monday, September 9, 2019

Who's Smarter? Me or the Fox?

We've had chickens for 20 years, and until this year, had few problems with predators.

The husband would credit Llambert, the now deceased llama, for keeping them at bay.

I always thought that nothing would come near where the Border collies tread.

This summer, though, a red fox got into our chickens one night.

And, then she came back during daylight hours and snagged a hen. I know, because I saw her.

So, I locked up the pullets in the pullet house and the four remaining hens in the hen house, and pondered how to allow my chickens to roam outdoors while still protecting them from the fox.

While I was researching electric poultry net, a friend told me of another threat: she saw a red-tailed hawk swoop into the horse paddock and carry off a pigeon.

So, I pondered and researched and pondered some more.

In an ideal world, the hens would roam the pastures, ride the occasional sheep, and generally be everywhere. But leaving them roaming now means they'll be picked off by predators.

So, I spent the past weekend building the chicken fortress: an enclosed coop and yard, surrounded by electric poultry netting.

I'm almost certain I'll get shocked on a daily basis. Will it keep the fox out and the hawk at bay?

Time will tell.

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Plan B for Winter

I'm not sure if the local post master has a good poker face--or if shipping baggies of grass is an everyday thing.

For me, it's a new thing.

It all started when I read this article by the Ohio State University Sheep Team. In it, the OSU professors discussed the poor-quality hay crop.  A wet spring and early summer meant cutting was delayed a month for many farmers. The resulting hay is past maturity, not that digestible and not that high in calories.

The hay in their example provided so few calories that a non-pregnant ewe would have to eat 9 lbs. of it to meet her daily calorie requirement. A ewe can't eat that much in a day. It's a like a human trying to get their daily calorie intake by eating only celery.

We celebrated finally getting hay in the barn.

Our hay was baled on the same day as the hay in their example. Because of a dry summer, it's the only hay we have.

While I'm an optimist, I'm also a realist. If I can't get second-cutting (more calorie dense) hay, what's my Plan B? First, I had to find out how much protein and calories my hay has. (On the good news front, it's very pretty and smells fresh. The Haflinger ponies gobble it down).

For the first time ever, I sent hay samples to a laboratory for testing.

Okay, for me, that sounded like a scary, complicated process. It's not. I took samples from three bales, put them in plastic bags and took them to the post office.

It's a rural post office. Maybe they ship lots of forage, soil and other crop samples.

Five days after shipping the samples, my test results arrived in my inbox. I had 3 pages of numbers, percentages and abbreviations--and no idea how to interpret them.

Luckily, the local OSU extension agent did.

The verdict: while the hay's not great, it'll keep the ponies and dry (non-pregnant) ewes well-fed through winter. In late pregnancy, the pregnant ewes are going to need another source of calories (something more dense). I can either supplement with better quality hay or grain. I can also consider changing my breeding dates to take full advantage of green grass.

But I can at least develop a plan--and know it'll probably change.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Because You're Never Too Old to...

Gael looking at the sheep. Some day, girl, some day.
Nearly a year ago, I was 2,250 miles from home, at the U.S. National Sheepdog Finals in California, and reflecting on the year behind and the year ahead.

My run had gone poorly, but I had no regrets about going. The coming year was going to be a rebuilding year.

Jack, the dog that ran in the Finals, was retiring. Emma, my other Open dog, needed more training to be competitive. I hoped to get Niki, my 4-year-old, progressing and completing courses; and Gael, my 1-year-old, was just starting her sheepdog journey. Maybe, by the fall of 2019, she'd be ready to start trialing in the nursery classes.

In sheepdog trialing and in life, things don't always go as planned.

Which explains why I've taken up jogging.

Gael, sweet Gael, broke her femur and tore her ACL during play time. (She plays hard).

She had surgery to repair the femur in late November. In mid-February, she had TPLO surgery to repair the knee.

By March, when she was supposed to start walking on the leg, she'd become quite adept at running on three legs, and the muscle mass in that leg was gone.

Border collies are clever and practical. Why use that leg when it was easier and faster to run on three?

And so the walking began.

At first, it was slower than an amble. I'd stop when she picked up and held her bad leg, and only go forward when she used it.

Eventually we picked up the pace, from 1 mph, to 2 mph, to 3 mph. But she only used that leg when on leash.

In June, when the summer temperatures were really heating up and the humidity was rising, we went to a canine physical therapist.

"You need to start jogging with her," she said. Just jog for 30 seconds and walk for a minute.

And so I did. I started slow and slowed more when she picked up and held that leg or tried to lope.

Border collies are clever and practical.

Gael was tired of being crated and walking slowly. She wanted to go.

She started putting that leg down and trotting. And, she's trotting faster and faster.

The heat hasn't subsided, and neither has the humidity. But I'm keeping up.

Maybe, just maybe, she'll return to working sheep by late fall.

Gael and Bubba on the evening dog walk.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

From Squish to Crackle

For months--through February, March, April, May and June--I looked to the sky and said, "Stop."

Rain, after rain, after rain left the ground saturated. Walking across the yard felt like walking on a sponge. In the recently planted pasture, I slid through the mud.

Sometime toward the end of June, the rains stopped.

I watched the weather radar as green splotches went to the north and to the south of us, and I found myself looking toward the sky, asking for rain.

The earth is asking for it too.

The grass is going dormant and cracks are appearing where the vegetation doesn't quite cover the ground--the areas where the pastures are overgrazed or newly plant.

On my daily dog walk, I stop often, looking at the cracks, wondering how deep they go.

I brought a ruler with me this morning and let it fall into a crack.

For a moment, I thought the earth was going to swallow it whole.

Unless the rains come soon, I'm going to trade out the ruler for a yard stick.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

There's Always That One

The pullet flock was happy to go outside this week.

The 8-week-old pullets are too big to confine in their pullet house, and too small to free range with the six adult hens.

So, my solution was, as it frequently is, to add more fencing.

Knowing they will be adult size in a few months, I went for the quick method, building a temporary fence around their pullet house. It allowed them to go outside, but kept the adult hens out.

Experience has taught me that not all my solutions are brilliant, and not all work. Erring on the side of caution, I kept the adult hens confined to the hen house on Wednesday and then let the pullets outside.

By day's end, three pullets were too chicken to go outside; five were enjoying their new digs; and five had proven that they were like mice, and able to squeeze through my fence.

I spent the evening catching pullets, and the following day planning for a grander temporary fence.

On Friday, I made a second attempt at pullet confinement. After completing the fence, I let the pullets outside. Within minutes all were outside, scratching for bugs and plucking weeds. At day's end, 12 pullets returned to their house and roosted.

And then there was this one, a Cuckoo Maran, who was in the sheep pasture, cooing, "Don't fence me in."

I wasn't going to argue with her.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Why it Pays to Look Down

The first time I spotted a killdeer's nest in the driveway. I noted its location, went to get my camera and could not find the nest again.

This spring, I've spent a considerably time looking down. In early spring, with hay supplies running low, I looked for signs of green grass. Now, that the sheep and horses are grazing pastures, I'm still looking down.

A wet spring means that many alfalfa stands were damaged, and I've yet to see a hay field cut in our area. I'm evaluating pastures, adjusting forage plans and looking down.

I still don't know how I spotted it among the clover, grass and weeds. Maybe it was the bit of brown among the lush green. But I stopped and looked closer.

And, I found a red-winged blackbird's nest and recently hatched chicks.

I crouched down for closer inspection and a photograph.

The mama flew overhead, squawking her disapproval.

Standing up and looking across the acres of grass, I told her, "Don't worry. I'll never find it again."

Monday, May 6, 2019

Small Victories

In herding, as in life, it's best to savor those magical moments and small victories.

This winter and spring have been marked by walking with dogs, in biting winds and rain, over rough, frozen ground and through mud.

I've been walking my young dog who is recovering from a leg injury. And, I've been walking with Emma, my open trial dog, as she drives, or pushes, the sheep around the fields.

Emma is not a natural driving dog. She'd rather gather the sheep and bring them to me. But driving is a useful skill, and a necessary one in competitions.

So, I've been trying to build her confidence by walking with her, and I've been trying to make it more exciting by driving the sheep to a fence where she can hold them there.

All those hours of training and miles of walking paid off at the sheepdog trial this weekend when she brought the sheep to me, turned the post, and trotted off, pushing the sheep toward the panels.

She had more confidence, and I seemed to finally have the timing of asking for little stops, flanks and walk-ups along the way. With just little adjustments here and there, we kept those sheep walking in a straight line and through the panels. When she completed her drive, Emma and I maneuvered those sheep right into the pen.

While we bobbled on other parts of the course, and still have lots of shedding work to do, I considered the weekend a success, and savored those small victories.

I savored a big victory too. For the first time, I scored a 30-point drive.