Saturday, December 1, 2018

Breaking in the New Farm Hand

For the past few years, Jack's been my number one farm dog. He moves the calmly and confidently, and the ewes never question his power.

I trust him to take care of me and the sheep. This summer, when the lambs were finding all types of ways to tangle themselves in buckets, he was the one I counted on to gently move them into a corner where I could catch and untangle them.

But Jack is well into his 10th year, and Border collies don't live forever. Another dog needs to step up and help out.

Niki is eager to do the job. At age 4, she has the energy and drive to work all day long, and the ewes never question her power. However, we have not developed that trust that Jack and I have.

Building trust takes work, and a lot of time. This fall, I've used her as the primary chore dog. Because chore work sometimes turns into training sessions, chores often take longer. And it's seldom easier to use her rather than Jack.

This week, wet weather forced me to take the sheep on an alternative route to their winter pasture. Rather than taking them through the waterway, their journey took them into an unfenced part of the farm, over a culvert and down the driveway.

Because the sheep had never taken that route before and never been across the culvert, I didn't know how they'd react.

The easy thing would have been to use Jack for the job.

Instead, I took Niki.

I knew she'd have to push the sheep enough to convince them to go over the culvert, but not so much they'd be scared and do some silly suicidal sheep thing, like jump off the driveway and into the rocks below.

She moved the sheep out of the pasture, down the driveway and toward the culvert. When I gave her a lie down command, she took it and waited, watching the sheep drift over the culvert.

With a few flanks, they were safely in their new pasture, and I was trusting Niki a little more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Truths about Sheep

1. If the ground is soft, sheep hooves do not wear down and must be trimmed.
2. We've had 43+ inches of rain this year.
3. The hooves must be trimmed.
4. Sheep do not particularly care for hoof trimming.
5. Neither do I.
6. If one wishes to practice good animal husbandry, neither 4 or 5 matter.

7. A sheep chair makes trimming hooves easier.
8. Unlike humans, sheep do not go, "Ah, a recliner" and hop in.
9. A dog cannot put a sheep into the chair (in the correct position).
10. I can get the smaller sheep into the sheep chair, but not the heavy, husky ewes.
11. The majority of the flock is heavy, husky ewes.
12. If one wishes to practice good animal husbandry, neither 8, 9 or 11 matter.

13. If I catch, halter and tie a ewe, I can trim her hooves.
14. My ewes are not fond of being caught, haltered or tied.
15. Sheep are built low to the ground.
16. Trimming hooves requires a lot of stooping, bracing and contorting.
17. A dog cannot trim sheep hooves.
18. If ones wishes to practice good animal husbandry,  none of this matters.

19. To accomplish the task and save my body, I trim 4-5 sheep a day.
20. When one has 30 ewes, the process takes a week.
21. Not a single ewe said thank you.
22. Not a single ewe admired her pedicure.
23. Not a single ewe asked when we could do that again.
24. Neither did I.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Early Winter Surprises

When I put on my wool coat this week, my hand went to the pocket and pulled out $7--two ones and a five.

I did a little happy dance, and thought of a college roommate, and the joy I felt when she found a dollar bill in her pocket on that first cold day of fall.

This was 30 years ago, and we were poor college students. A dollar was a big deal.

"Oh, I put it there last spring," she said. "I do that every spring, put dollar bills in my coat pockets. I like the surprise."

But is it a surprise?

I'm not organized enough to schedule a dollar-bill-in-the-coat-pocket day in the spring. Because of that, my surprises are genuine. In addition to money, I've found some other mementos this week.

In my dress coats, I've found a ticket stub to a play from last winter, a to-do list, my favorite pen, a pair of glasses.

My non-dress coats are much more interesting. I often find running orders from dog trials that happened months ago. I'll also find gloves, used hand warmer packets, dog treats, hay chaff, grease markers, an ear tag.

Deep in the recesses of my brain, I know that an organized person is supposed to wash all her coats or take them to the dry cleaners once winter has passed. But when does winter really end?

I've worn coats in April and even May.

And who wants to put on a coat, stick their hand in the pocket and find nothing?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Red Orbs in October

Weeds took over the garden in late July.

Blame it on the rain, the heat, too much dog training, too much vacationing, not enough will.

In late August and September, I'd wade into the weed patch and search for a cucumber, a zucchini, a pepper, a tomato--whatever could grow among the weeds.

That's the way it is some years, and I'm okay with that.

Right before the frosts and freezes came, I picked peppers as they were near the garden gate and still somewhat accessible.

The tomatoes I let fall victim to the frost.

But gardens must be cleaned, and before I could turn the chickens or sheep into the garden, I had to rid it of the wire tomato cages.

So, in the afternoon sun and cool breezes of late October, I waded into the garden and pulled up the tomato plants.

Imagine my surprise when I found a perfect red orb, undamaged by the freeze or hungry insects.

After wiping it off with my sweatshirt, I took a bite.

It was firm and juicy and tasted of summer.

Apparently the weeds had protected it from the freezing winds and frosts. The weeds had protected others too. After a search, I discovered six more red treasures.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Searching for That Sweet Spot

Niki brings in the flock so that I could separate the flock. 

Spring is five months away, and that means sheep breeding season starts today.

Over the years, we've lambed as early at late February and as late as late April--all in an effort to hit that sweet spot when:

--Winter is over.

--The spring grass is coming on.

--Fly season hasn't started.

--The lambs are market weight by late October.

--Lambs are born before sheepdog trial season begins.

We've been raising sheep for well over a decade, and we have yet to hit that sweet spot.

This past year, we opted for early lambing, and ended up feeding hay as we watched winter hang on and on.

So, for 2019, we're aiming for the first day of spring. (A ewe's gestation period is 5 months).

This afternoon, I sorted the flock, separating the breeding ewes from the ewe lambs and dog-working sheep. I turned the ram out with the breeding ewes and moved them to a separate pasture.

In five months, we hope to have lambs born into sunshine and green grass.

Will it happen? We'll just have to wait and see.

Roxie, the mischievous barn cat,  parked herself in front of the pasture gate, making the sheep sorting process more of a challenge.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Another Day, Another Training Challenge

But mom, you said to keep the sheep out of the exhaust pen.

My tri-colored Border collie sees the world in black and white.

Niki is the most challenging, most affectionate, cutest and hardest working dog I own. But, she sees the world differently than my other dogs.

At the sheepdog competition this past weekend, I used her to exhaust sheep for the pro-novice class. The sheep weren't so sure they wanted to go into the exhaust, or holding pen, at the end of each competitor's run. The pen was unfamiliar, and sheep don't like unfamiliar.

Niki loved running out onto the field, collecting the sheep and directing them to the exhaust pen. She enthusiastically did her job time and time again.

On the second day of the trial, the sheep no longer saw the exhaust pen as an unfamiliar, scary place. Instead, it was a place where they could eat hay and get away from the dogs.

So Niki's job description changed.

Her job was to make sure the sheep did not get to the exhaust pen during each competitor's run. At the end of the run, though, she was to let the sheep into the pen.

And, that's where she got confused.

She was all into keeping them OUT of the pen at ALL times. That was great when the handlers were competing, but not when they were finished. She was not going to let those sheep into the exhaust pen EVER.

To get the job done, I resorted to keeping her on leash, opening the exhaust pen gate and keeping her out of the way so the sheep could get into the pen.

It's Monday now, and I'm pondering how to help Niki understand that her job description can change every five minutes.

The good news is that she wants to work with me. The bad news is that I've got to figure out her language.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Traveling with Dogs: What we ask

When I loaded up the Subaru, the Border collies saw the open crates and hopped in, ready for the ride. They had no idea that we were traveling for 2,300 miles, or that the journey would take days.

Before departing for California, people asked if I were traveling alone.

"Nope, I have three dogs," I said, adding, "They're great traveling companions. They never ask how much longer, demand a different channel on the radio or complain about my singing."

While Border collies amaze me on the trial field, they really amaze me as travelers, and not just because they never ask me to change the channel.

During my travels, I ask them to ride in crates for hours. When we get out of the car, they may see zooming cars and strangers. Sometimes they work on strange fields on unfamiliar sheep. At night, they sometimes sleep in motel rooms where the voices of people and vehicles can be heard through the walls. Sometimes, they sleep in their crates in the car.

Rarely do they protest. They just adapt.

Oh, there was a 24-hour period when the young dog was miffed about the pottying situation. With no green grass in sight, I asked her to pee on gravel. She just looked at me. Ten minutes later, she decided that gravel was okay.

We aren't in the green fields of Ohio anymore. Gael, now a year old, adapted quickly.

By the time they're adults, most Border collies participating in sheepdog trials have traveled hundreds, often thousands of miles. Although too young to compete, they often travel with their owners and other Border collies, to trials.

I'm sure the socialization helps them adapt.

But the dogs also live in the here and now--and if they're with their human and their pack, then that is where they want to be.

Emma checks to make sure it is Jack underneath all that dirt.