Friday, December 31, 2010

The Thaw

The Thaw means that Lily and Jet have better footing -- no more ice to slip on.
They celebrated that by racing around the paddock and rolling in the wet sand.
The only thing that would have made them happier would be running in the pastures. But that's not going to happen.
Photos: Lily and Jet after their romp around the paddock. There will be no bareback riding today!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What I Didn't See

Over Christmas break, I've been reading Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human. Last night, I read about how humans often miss visual details. Today, I put it in practice on the herding field. During the herding lesson, I sent Caeli, my Border collie, on an outrun to fetch 10 sheep who were eating hay in the middle of the field. My instructor and her dog were standing nearby to simulate a trial situation. When Caeli lifted, or moved, the sheep from the hay, I focused on Caeli -- that she responded to the down command and that she did not rush the sheep. My instructor told me to down the dog and then have her bring the sheep back to the hay. As Caeli was turning the sheep back toward the hay, I noticed three ewes eating hay. "Where'd they come from?" I asked. "They never left," she said. Apparently Caeli had only picked up some of the sheep, and I was too focused on the dog to notice.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas on the Farm

The husband and I usually spend Christmas on the road -- traveling to relatives for Christmas gatherings.
This year, we stayed home.
The weather was ideal -- in the high 20s with calm winds and snow on the ground.
After opening presents and eating breakfast, I worked the Border collie on sheep. Then, the husband and I took our two Border Collies and the two foster Border Collies for a walk around the farm.
We couldn't have given the dogs a better Christmas present. They loved chasing each other, hunting for field mice in the clumps of grass, and rolling in the snow.
The Christmas puppy did his best to keep up with the the pack.
But by the time we arrived home, he was tired and ready for a nap in front of the wood-burning stove. I followed his lead. After selecting from one of the many Christmas books, I curled up in a chair by the fire.
Later, friends came over and we enjoyed a variety of stouts and snacks and good company. It was a peaceful Christmas.
PHOTO: This is Ripley, the new foster pup. He enjoys romping in the snow.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

An Unexpected Christmas Song

When my husband and I arrived home on Christmas Eve, it was almost midnight. The snow was falling, the air was still -- the weather I always hope for on a winter's night. Into this silence I walked with three exuberant dogs and a puppy. The yips stopped me. I was only 100 feet from the house, and the yips and barks seemed to be coming from the field in front of me, or, were they to the east? The chorus grew louder. Growls were added. How many coyotes were there? I envisioned twenty or more. But that's the thing about coyotes. They can throw their voices, and a few can sound like a pack. I wasn't taking chances, and called the dogs to me. We returned to the yard. The yipping subsided. At midnight, the snow was falling, the air was still. It was a silent night.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Believe It or Not...

We have a new foster puppy for Christmas.
Ripley is a four-month-old, purebred Border collie, and the resident cats and dogs have informed me that he is NOT the present they envisioned for Christmas.
They cannot believe I brought home a puppy that will compete with them for attention, and a puppy that has to learn about proper dog-to-dog behavior.
But they are good sports. They realize that all critters appreciate having a home for Christmas... even if it is a temporary one.
The first photo is of Ripley. Hopefully I'll get better photos in the coming days.
The second photo is of Dewey, who likes to believe he's king of the household.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Winter Grazing

Some vegetables -- like parsnips and brussel sprouts -- are better tasting after a blast of cold weather. Apparently some grasses are too. We've had snow on the ground for about a week now. But that doesn't mean the horses or sheep have stopped grazing. They're heading into the pastures, pawing the ground to clear the snow, and eating the green blades underneath. The fescue that they avoided in spring, summer and fall is their grass of choice. I wonder if, sitting under the snow, it's gained a sweetness and become more tender. The stock seem to think so.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter Riding and Herding

Today I had to talk myself into horseback riding and sheep herding practice.
It's been weeks since I've ridden -- a combination of limited daylight hours, good weather and motivation. My winter horseback rule is that it must be in the 20s and little wind (which at our place is less than 10 mph). Sun also helps.
That happened today.
Yet I was unmotivated until I brought the horses in from the pasture. As I removed a few burrs from Jet's mane, I ran my hands over her thick coat. That was enough to motivate me.
I hacked Jet around for 15 minutes. She seemed to welcome the adventure. I took in the snow, the sun, the wind on my cheeks. Then I looked at Lily.
I decided to ride her bareback, then had second thoughts when I went to get on. I ate a lot of cookies yesterday and was wearing my heavy winter coat. But she stood quietly while I not-so-gracefully mounted.
Then, she happily went to work.
Apparently the horses are like me. They need a little nudging, and then are happy about the work once it's underway.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Longing for Daylight

I spent the past two days in a conference in downtown Columbus.
By Tuesday afternoon, I was longing to be outside, walking in the snow.
Apparently not everyone shared by longing.
The two gentlemen in front of me were discussing how they didn't plan to go outside until the temperature hit above freezing -- no time in the extended forecast.
The temperatures reached the low 20s today. The sun was shining. The wind was calm.
I took an extended lunch break and walked with the dogs. They delighted in rolling and wrestling in the snow and hunting field mice. I worked Caeli on sheep, and I watched the horses, snoozing in the snow and basking in the sun.
After an hour and a half, my cheeks were numb, but I was much happier.
PHOTOS: Some of the sheep gather around the hay feeder.
Mandy, the foster dog, hunts for mice in the snow.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday Mornings

We don’t have access to cable, or county water, or daily newspaper delivery where we live. But on Sundays, we receive both the Dayton and New York Times newspapers. I have to trek a quarter of a mile down the lane to retrieve them. But that’s not much of an inconvenience for a chance to drink coffee, eat breakfast and read the paper. Except in the winter when the wind is blowing and the temperatures fall below freezing. Then, the left side of my face is numb by the time I reach the roadway where the papers lie in blue pastic bags at the end of the driveway. Yesterday, I was rewarded for my efforts with no papers. In the early dawn, I shuffled my feet around in the snow, but could find no paper. Apparently the newspaper delivery driver and I have different expectations for the time of delivery. So, the dogs and I walked back toward the house. I stopped periodically to turn and look for headlights of the delivery driver. They came as I reached the front yard. So I turned and made a second trek down the driveway for the newspaper.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Pet-Proof Tree

If I wanted to love my pets during the holiday season, I could not have a traditional tree.
The dog could view some of those ornaments as chew toys. Dewey Kitty would see those ornaments as toys ripe for plucking.
Last year, we blocked the tree with a four-foot pen -- effective but not attractive.
This year, I opted for the natural tree. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I picked pine cones. After washing them and roasting them in the oven (to kill bugs), I sprayed them with glitter.
Then, after stringing lights around the tree, I tied the pine cones on with tan and red ribbons.
After a week, the cats have batted at the pine cones, but have only pulled off one cone. The dogs have left it alone.
It's a simple tree, but it seems quite comfortable in an old farmhouse.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Split Flock

When a ewe splits from the flock, my instinct is to: 1.Panic 2.Reunite the ewe with the flock. I have to learn to ignore my instinct. Sheep are herd animals. When split from the flock, they're nervous. If I panic, then we have a nervous sheep and person on the field. The dog is going to react by trying to take control of the situation -- and in her frenzy, she could grip or bite the sheep. Because the lone sheep is nervous, she's going to be hard to move. Therefore, I need to bring the rest of the flock to her. When working the new group of sheep on Thursday, I had lots of practice on reacting to split flocks. The seven sheep weren't working as a flock and would split. I had Caeli lying down while I thought of how to redirect. By Friday, they were working as a flock. I'll use this same group again today for a morning practice before turning them back with the big flock. Who knows what the next group will teach me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Matron, Newcomer, Three Virgins, and Two Lambs

Sometimes the sheep dictate the practice. At this time of year, I choose the practice flock randomly. Usually, it's the last group to the barn. In yesterday's case, it was the group that was leaving the barn and heading out to pasture. I shut the gate after several had gone through. The practice group was the Eclectic Seven. They included: The Matron-- the oldest ewe. She's been worked a few times by the dog and is a leader. I didn't see a problem with her. The Newcomer -- an adult ewe who'd never been worked by the dog. She'd be a challenge, but I hoped she'd follow the Matron. Three Virgins -- three of the practice ewes I'd used during the summer and fall. By fall, the Virgins had learned that if they came to me, I'd keep the dog from them. So, when I sent Caeli to fetch, they often came running to me before she reached them. At least they knew the routine, I thought. The Lambs -- I had a bottle lamb, who was people friendly but still followed the flock, and an unpredictable other lamb. When Caeli fetched them, the flock split. The Three Virgins moved toward me, then, realizing the others weren't following, stopped. The other four wanted to move toward the barn and the safety of the larger flock. I was going to practice: 1) Staying calm. 2) Putting Caeli in a down position while I figured out how to reunite the flock.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

When the temperatures drop

The stack of hay in the barn is shrinking quickly now. When the temperatures are in the 30 and 40s, the sheep and horses pick through the hay, selecting the best pieces and leaving the undesirable ones behind as they mosey to the pastures and fence rows to find some bits of grass. The chickens eat the scratch grain and pick at the laying mix before searching the pastures for better choices. When the temperatures are in the teens and low 20s, the sheep and horses eat all of the hay. The chickens love the laying mix. The food requirements for all of the animals goes up. The Border collies, though, seem unaware that temperatures, as well as wind speeds, are in the teens. They look at me, asking, "Why aren't we going on a trek around the farm?"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A New Favorite

Over Thanksgiving, my sister was showing off her new boots. They were pointy-toed, had heels and fringe. I'm loving my new boots -- but not wearing them to family gatherings. My Muck boots are warm, waterproof and lightweight. I can slosh through mud in them and spay them off. I can chase the Border collie and sheep while wearing them. They're keeping my feet warm in the sub-freezing temperatures this week.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Pullet Egg

It shouldn't have been a surprise. I'd been checking the floors and nesting boxes of the young hen house for about a month now. I've been telling the pullets that it's about time. The pullets and cockerels are about 6 1/2 months old. The Buckeyes are a slow-maturing breed. While some egg-specialist breeds start laying eggs at 5 months, if not before, the Buckeyes take a little longer. We hatched this group a little later in the spring than we usually do, and I wondered if they would lay at all in December. My older hens lay few eggs during the shortest days of the year and then pick back up in late January. I was surprised when I stepped into the hen house on a cold, snowy Sunday morning and almost crushed it: a small brown egg nestled in the sawdust on the floor.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wood Cutting

During the past several years, the spouse and I spent many fall weekends in the woods. The goal was always to have a year's supply of wood dried, split and stacked in the shed.
With him working 60+ hour weeks this year, we had wood for this year, but none for next year.
That was until last weekend's wood-cutting extravaganza. A friend, a brother and a father joined us for a day in the woods.
As chainsaws buzzed, I drove the tractor and wagon through the woods and collected logs. By day's end, we had enough for a wood-splitting extravaganza. That is to come at a future date.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

For my Birthday

Mother Nature gave me snow. They were the first snowflakes of the season, and I welcomed them with an open tongue. Dewey Kitty also gave me snow. He shredded yet another toilet paper roll, and I welcomed it like snow in April.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

When the South Wind Blows

I find myself testing my flexibility. Strong south winds blew the door to the chicken house shut this morning while I was inside, trading out the old water for the new when it happened. The door has no interior handle. So, I found myself squatting as I crawled out through the chicken entrance. A few chickens looked up when they saw me coming. The rest continued eating.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Good Dog

Sometimes I call my dogs the wild things. Sometimes I call them much worse. But, sometimes I look at them and think, "What good dogs." Last night, Tag won the honors when we had guests over. He sat, instead of jumping. He was gentle with the kids. He was the greeter. He laid quietly during the meal, never begging or being obnoxious. Caeli won good dog honors tonight. Dark had hit, and I realized we were going to have storms and lots of rain overnight. The ram and ewes have windbreaks in the pasture but little shelter when the weather turns nasty. So, I rushed to bring them into a horse stall for overnight. The ram, who is hopeful to find an interested ewe anywhere, walked into the stall, but the ewes didn't follow. Rather than chase them around the paddock, I locked the ram in a stall, and went to get Caeli. "Away," I told her. She circled the sheep and then laid down to watch the ewes walk single file into the stall, as easy as that. By myself, it would have taken minutes or hours of mind games and cajoling and foot stomping to get those ewes into a stall. "You are a good dog," I told her.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Natural Christmas Tree

Dewey Kitty has us rethinking th eChristmas tree. Last year, he was an 8-10 week old kitten, and we enclosed the tree in a large dog x-pen. That -- why aesthetically not pleasing -- kept the little guy out. While he is a little less agile, he is more crafty this year. In the past few weeks, he's made a sport out of opening the vanity drawer in the bathroom to get to the hidden toilet paper roll. I don't want to think of how he'd maim and kill the Christmas tree ornaments. So, we're considering a tree decorated with just lights and pine cones. I collected and washed the pine cones today. Tomorrow, they go for a slow roast in the oven to kill any lingering insects. Then it's decorating time. I'd love to add popcorn strings to the tree -- but I know how Dewey Kitty loves popcorn. The tree is to be admired, not eaten.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On This Rainy Thanksgiving Morning, I am Thankful for

A cat that snuggles, and a fire in the woodstove. A dog that is always by my side, and one that herds sheep. An old farmhouse, and a solid barn. Two ponies who call to me every morning, and sheep who demand their food. Chickens who come running, and warm, just laid eggs. Food in the freezer, and a plot of land that produces vegetables. A friend that makes me smile. A friend that encourages. A friend that expects more. Siblings who share a common childhood, and are a phone call away. Parents who are ready to dust us, should we fall. A husband who will journey with me, and tolerates it all. Dewey Kitty is thankful for Pull tabs on milk cartons Slow flies Toilet paper Ladders A cat buddy who'll play and snuggle with him. Tag is thankful for: Me. The hundreds who pet him, and think he's cute. A Frisbee, long walks, an adventure. A treat, a pet, a warm bed. Caeli is thankful for: Sheep. An owner who works her on sheep, and tolerates her eccentricities. Tag who plays and wrestles, and provides a crutch in social settings. A crate and a routine that offers the security she needs. Lily the Pony is thankful for: An equine buddy Pasture and hay An owner who tolerates her princess attitude. The hens are thankful for: Bits of vegetation A potato, a tomato, a seed, that I left in the garden Scratch grain and apple cores A place that is dry and free from predators. Trick the Barn Cat is thankful for: Slow sparrows Hay that is stacked six bales high Rafters A barn full of critters to amuse him Border collies to torment Cat food.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Ram is No Gentleman

After overnight rain, I go to the pasture to feed the ram and three ewes. The ram is sleeping underneath the shelter. The three ewes are standing outside. The weather forecast calls for three inches of rain in the coming days, and I don't want my ewes standing out in it. This afternoon, we again did the sheep shuffle. I moved Megan and the Fat Four from the ram pen and out to a pasture for their daily exercise (dog herding practice). Afterwards, they happily joined the rest of the flock. This left the ram shelter and run open, so I moved the ram and three ewes to it. When I threw a flake of hay in the feeder, the ram ate it while the three ewes stood outside under the overhang. You aren't a sheep, you are a pig, I told him.

A Consequence of Cheap Meat

I watch a farmer spread liquid hog manure from a factory farm on his fields. The weather forecasts calls for up to three inches of rain in the next few days. It doesn't take a scientist to figure out where most of that manure will go.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The End of Egg Season

When I enter the chicken coops in the evenings, I sometimes find empty egg boxes. The pullets, deciding to extend their youth, are not laying eggs yet. The older hens say this is the season of hibernation, not productivity. The hens' egg productivity has been dropping for months. As the daylight hours get shorter, they lay fewer eggs. Who, after all, wants chicks in December? A few months ago, we stopped having extra eggs to sell. Now, I've stopped giving the dogs their customary fresh egg every day. Instead, they are getting eggs that I froze when we had a surplus in the spring. They are dogs, and they don't complain. And, I am a human, so I take delight in those eggs when I find one, maybe two, in the nesting boxes. They are gifts on late fall afternoons.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Megan and the Fat Four

The Five Virgins have been replaced.
I'm now using Megan and the Fat Four as the practice sheep for herding.
In herd feeding situations, the leaders usually get the most and best food. When I looked over our flock, I saw some fat ewes. The obvious solution was to separate them, feed them lower quality hay, and use them for herding practice.
The Fat Four all come from the same foundation ewe: ChocoButt, a big brown ewe who was always the first at the feeder and always the fattest. Her daughters and granddaughters inherited her leadership and eating skills.
The Fat Four include: Hershey, Godiva, Mounds, and Reese's.
I used them for practice for the first time this morning.
I don't think they like their new job.
But I don't think they'll go on a hunger strike in protest.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Softer Ground

The horses celebrated the 1.3-inches of rain by rolling in the paddock. When I let them out into the big pasture, they celebrated softer ground by running, bucking and kicking. Their enthusiasm caused the dust and dirt in their coats to poof out in dust clouds around them. For the first time in months, the dust clouds were swirling their bodies instead of their feet.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Her Comfort Zone

More than one person has called her socially-backwards.
We just call her an odd duck.
We suspect that Caeli, our Border collie, wasn't socialized as a young dog. She was rescued from a shelter when she was a young adult.
When she arrived at our house, it was clear she didn't know how to act around dogs, cats and people.
She wanted to play with cats, but they wanted nothing to do with her wiggling, pawing and nose poking. She'd sidle up to me for attention. Again, she wiggled and pawed and was unsure how to act. She postured and growled when other dogs approached, and then, they kicked her butt.
New places stressed her. Car rides stressed her. A person watching her drink water stressed her.
The one thing that didn't stress her were sheep.
With sheep, that herding instinct overtook her fears and worries.
Caeli went to her first herding trial over the weekend. We didn't know how she'd react. Some dogs shut down when at a new place and with new sheep. Some become overzealous, chasing the sheep and ignoring their handlers.
Caeli wasn't fond of the new dogs and the new place. The hotel room and traffic stressed her. But on the trial field, she was quite at home. She worked, and listened, and was quite happy.
That instinct, bred into her generation after generation, won out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Unexpected Sight

The sight in the hallway stopped me. I turned on the lights to see better. There, on the laminate floor were things I haven't seen in months -- muddy pawprints. We've had litle rain since mid-July. What has fallen has been one-tenth of an inch here and there. That's just enough to settle the dust for a few hours, maybe a day. That's not enough to green the grass and make it grow, to fill in the cracks in the earth, to refill groundwater supplies, to give me hope that there will be enough moisture in the ground come spring. But yesterday, it rained for several hours. When walking and driving in it, I was struck by how odd it seemed. How, I had started to get used to it not raining. That I had to think about putting on rain gear. When the rain stopped overnight, the rain gauge read 1.3 inches. That was enough to moisten the ground, to create a little mud, to make pawprints on the floor in the hallway.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Re-calculating Hay Needs

The farmer asked if I wanted another wagonload of hay for the winter. Four months ago, I would have said no, that I had plenty of hay. However, the dry weather makes me re-calculate. Even in the snowy, cold months of December, January and February, the horses and sheep find forage in the pastures to supplement the hay that I feed them. But, with no late summer and fall growth, that isn't the case this year. So, I'm calculating their feed needs as if they have no other food source -- something I haven't done before. If the winter is unusually cold, their food requirements also increase. I asked for another wagonload of hay. There's a good chance I'll need another load come early spring.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fall Hooves

The staccato pop, pop, pop fills the warm afternoon air. The farrier is trimming the horses' hooves and I'm glad he's operating the nippers, not I. Our rainfall has totaled less than four inches since mid-July, leaving the ground dry, the grass parched, and the hooves hard and difficult to trim. My horses spend several hours each day grazing the pastures. During most years, this helps keep their hooves moist and strong. Their hooves move over dew-covered grass, soaking in some of the moisture. Since mid-summer, the dew covered mornings have diminished. When the farrier arrives, he finds horses with cosmetic chipping and little growth. Over the years, I've noticed that the hooves grow fastest in the spring when the pastures are growing and coming on fast. They slow as fall approaches, and slow more over winter when they're eating mostly hay. The farrier says that trimming requires a little more muscle power these days. I know what he means. Over the weekend, I helped a friend trim sheep hooves. The advantage of doing this during a dry spell is no mud. The disadvantage is harder hooves that take more muscle to cut. Because of the dry ground, we won't be trimming our sheep this fall. They've worn them down on their daily treks over the hard clay soil to the alfalfa field.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nuzzling the Muzzles

My horses' muzzles are ready for the snow.
Instead of the shiny, smooth black look of summer, the muzzles are covered in light-colored hair -- that protects against the cold and catches the ice balls of winter.
On cold mornings, I run my hands over the soft fuzz and let my hands stop at the nostrils where I catch the puffs of warmth.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Stopping the Action

As I prepare for my first herding trial, my instructor gives me this advice. If things seem out of control, have the dog lie down. That pause in the action should allow me to regroup and, if needed, redirect. That seems like good advice for life. When life seems out of control and chaotic, lie down, think about the options, and then go on.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Leaves in our Yard

Most people have red and golden leaves underneath their trees. We have corn husks and leaves. A dry fall means the corn husks and leaves are particularly flighty this year. Days of westerly winds blew the corn husks and debris from the neighboring field. I wonder if I should rake them, mow them, or just enjoy them.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

An October Treat

The red apples are a bright contrast to the dormant grass, dirt, twigs and withered sunflower heads in the chicken yard.
A while back, a friend commented that she had so many "seconds" from her apple tree and was wondering aloud what to do with them.
"My chickens would love them," I said. "The horses too."
I was delighted when she gave me a box of wormy apples. The chickens, more so.
The unusually dry fall meant the vegetation dried up months ago. The young birds, confined to the chicken yard, must rely on humans for the occasional vegetable and fruit scraps for variety in their diet.
I counted out twenty apples -- enough for each bird, plus an extra, and tossed them into the yard.
Those beaks punctured the apple peel in no time, and I stood and watched and delighted in the pluck, pluck, pluck, and chicken purrs coming from the chicken yard.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

We're Going to Keep Her

After a year-long search, we finally added a second horse to the family.
Her barn name is Jet, and, like Lily, she's an 8-year-old registered Haflinger mare.
Like Lily, she likes to eat; she's very sociable and curious; and she's very neat in her stall -- a horse keeper's dream.
The two have their differences.
While Lily, who stands at 14.1 1/4 hands, is a pony, Jet, at 14.2 3/4 hands, is a horse.
Jet is the athlete. She trots everywhere. Lily ambles.
Jet has more of a workman-like attitude, and Lily, well, Lily will always be the princess.
Both make me smile.
The two are already buddies, and I often find them standing in a stall together, or both lying down and snoozing in the paddock.
In the photos, Lily is the one with the blaze and Jet has the star on her forehead.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hazards on the Herding Field

Caeli and I moved the sheep into the pasture where I planned to practice penning. When hearing the “Away” command, she circled counter-clockwise. But in mid-circle, she saw one of three hens that were roaming the pasture. Her path and mind wandered from the sheep to the chickens. “Lie down,” I commanded, imagining flying chickens and feathers if she tried to herd them. "Away," I said again. Again she focused on the sheep. But, before I could breathe easily, Trick the Cat, sauntered out to the field. As she passed, he pounced her and bit her back leg. She ignored him. She was focusing on sheep, sheep, sheep. Until she saw those chickens again. “That’ll do,” I said, wondering if the herding book had advice for practicing with meddling chickens and cats in the field.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When the Music Doesn't Fit the Setting

Hiking in the Italian Alps, we stopped at a home/cafe to refill our water bottles and heard Bruce Springsteen belting out "Glory Days." Layered in a sweatshirt, jacket and gloves and doing farm chores on the pre-dawn fall morning, I had trouble delighting in the Beach Boys "Surfin' U.S.A." On my way home from the Y, I stop at the gas station/convenience store that sits among the poultry barns and corn fields at the village's edge. Standing behind the man in Carhartts, I smile when I hear the Grateful Dead singing "Touch of Grey."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horse Shopping 301: The Trial Period

We brought the mare home for a trial period in September. During my two test rides, I liked her gaits, her training, her conformation, her temperament. But the true test would come when I brought her home. How would she could along with Lily? Were her ground manners as good as they seemed? Both of these could be deal-breakers. While I like to think that I'll spend every day riding, I know that much of my interactions with horses is on the ground -- there is feeding, grooming, regular caretaking to do. A horse that could live harmoniously with the herd and with me was a must. Lily was an easy sell. Within hours, she was hanging her head over the new horse's stall door and rubbing her withers. I, too, was an easy sell. The mare respected my space and stood quietly when tied. The added bonus: She came when called. And often, she threw in a nicker. Now, a horse that treats its human as a rock star is hard to resist.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Retiring the Gloves

The cold weather reminded me that it’s time to retire the once-white work gloves. The middle finger tip blew out last spring. While I enjoyed the air conditioning this summer, I don’t enjoy it on mornings when temperatures drop into the 30s. But I feel a sadness with letting them go. Those gloves carry the dirt from the garden, the manure from the barns, the sweat from me. Red and green livestock grease pencil marks dot their backsides. When I wear them and see the slits made with the hoof trimmers, I’m reminded of that chore, and the gratitude I felt that I was wearing gloves. Those gloves are bathed in the blood of horses, sheep, dogs, and my own. Their fingers curl just like mine. The new gloves feel stiff, not a part of me. But I wear them on Sunday when I’m moving hay so they can start carrying the story of me and the farm.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall Cleaning

When I went to hook the manure spreader to the tractor, I had to wait my turn in the barnyard. The farmer and his helper were moving hay wagons out of the barn for baling later in the day. Another was moving the combine from the just-harvested field. Temperatures hits 70 degrees yesterday, and we were scurrying around to do last-minute tasks before cold weather set in and snow or rain (I'd take either) fell from the sky. I tackled the horse barn and paddock. Before we move hay into the barn, I rake out the old. I also cleaned the aisleways and sheep stall. Then, I headed outside to the paddock. The Haflinger mares are neat. Unless closed in their stalls, they won't poop in them. Instead, they've created four "bathroom areas" on the perimeter of the paddock. I cleaned those up and deposited the deposits into the manure spreader. Once the spreader was filled, my husband spread the old hay and manure onto a harvested field. With daylight and warmth left, I tackled other tasks -- disinfected the horse waterers and sheep tank. Then, clippers in hand, I turned to the horses. Their bridlepaths could use a little tidying before winter set in.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Horse Shopping 202: First Impressions

The mare was running around the round pen, bucking and calling to her pasture mate. I wasn't impressed. My friend and I had driven 2.5-hours to see this horse who had sounded promising over the phone. She was trained to ride and drive, had show experience, great bloodlines and conformation. I'd seen a few photos of her, but no video. While the horse running around the round pen was well put together and a great mover, I wasn't sure I wanted to climb on top of her and give her a spin. I was no longer a teen-ager, and, over the years, I've learned that falls hurt more than they used to. They also can break bones. When her rider arrived at the barn, she led the mare from the round pen, put her in cross ties and tacked her up. The mare began settling. The rider swung into the saddle, and the mare went to work. The horse was responsive and obedient and a nice mover. I went to my car and retrieved my saddle.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Horse Shopping 201: Getting my Feet Wet

Horse shopping is so much different than a decade ago. Because of economic conditions, more horses are for sale. The Internet makes it easy to market your horse. With a click of the mouse, I can find horses for sale on farm websites, registries, and general horse classifieds. People can email photos and videoes of the horses.

But in the end, I still had to make the phone calls, ask the questions, and finally, get in the car and drive to see the horses.

I just looked at fewer horses this time around.

Coming tomorrow: First Impressions

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Horse Shopping 104: Temperament

Years ago I read an article by a horse conformation expert. Her first recommendation for horse shopping was finding a horse whose temperament you liked. Before buying Scuba in the 1990s, I talked with people who'd cared and ridden her. The first thing they said about her were -- what a lovely mare, what a sweet mare, what a fun mare. She had her physical limitations and, as she grew older, her health ailments. But it was still a joy to have a horse with a fun personality in the barn. My Haflinger Lily is a curious, personable mare who has her nose into everything and often scares herself. She, too, has her physical limitations. She's always had difficult with the right canter lead. So, this time around, I was looking for a horse with a great temperament, but also with physical ability.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Horse Shopping 103: Mares vs. Geldings

Some horse people want nothing to do with mares. They say they're temperamental, moody, unreliable. I don't have that attitude. Most of my riding horses have been mares. Over my lifetime, I've ridden or owned some wonderful mares and geldings, and I've experienced my share of temperamental mares and geldings too. My experience with horses and dogs has taught me to look at the temperament first, and worry about the plumbing later. With that attitude, I began my search. I wanted a Haflinger -- between the ages of 4 to 10, trained to ride and drive. How hard could that be? Little did I know that the search would take nearly a year.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Horse Shopping 102: Mare Economics

When I bought Lily, the Haflinger, six years ago, Haflingers were harder to find -- especially mares and fillies. "Unless you're breeding, don't get a mare. Get a gelding," a breeder told me. The Haflinger horse market was so hot that people were buying Haflingers in utero. I found a different market when I began shopping late last year. A year into the Great Recession, many breeders no longer believed an economic recovery was around the corner and were selling their mares. Quality mares were selling for less than geldings with the same training.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Horse Shopping 101

A year ago, I dipped my toes into horse shopping. Scuba died last October, and Dundee died in December. That left Lily, the Haflinger, as an only horse. I thought finding another horse would be easy. Afterall, the economic collapse of 2008 created a buyers' market. I narrowed my search to Haflingers. Because Lily gets fat on a few hours of pasture, she spends most of the day in a dry lot. It would be easiest if the other horse could be on that schedule too. I also had fallen in love with the Haflinger breed. They're a great size -- usually falling into the large pony or small horse category. They also are very personable horses. Most want to be with humans and are very curious. Plus, with that golden color and their white manes and tails, they're just cute, cute, cute. There were lots of Haflingers for sale, I soon discovered. However, finding the right one was going to take time.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Inspection Day

Today is USDA inspection day.
Because our sheep are enrolled in a voluntary scrapies inspection program, the USDA vet visits our farm annually to check our records and the health of the flock. This means each animal is caught and each ear tag is verified.
This morning, I brought all of the sheep in from pastures and put them into stalls so that the process will go faster.
First, I brought the Five Virgins (the five yearling ewes I've used for dog herding practice) in from the pasture.
Then I had to catch the llama that stays with the the main flock. Because he is a guard animal, he must be removed from the flock before we handle the sheep. I don't want him kicking at or spitting on me when I'm trying to catch sheep.
Llambert the Llama is not fond of being caught. Lucky for me, he is fond of eating and usually eats inside with several lambs. Once confined to a stall, he is easier to catch and halter.
After moving him to a stall, I next worked on the bringing the main flock into the barn. With Caeli, the Border collie, helping, we accomplished that task in a minute or two.
The horses are giving me dirty looks, as they aren't used to having that many sheep in the barn at this time of year.
Pictured are several of the ewes and lambs -- who insist on crowding into one stall instead of spreading out into two stalls.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Great Blue Heron

A college friend once told me that seeing a Great Blue Heron brought luck. That belief may have stemmed from a time when the heron numbers were low. Or, maybe, it was because the Great Blue is such a prehistoric looking bird. When I saw one this evening, I caught my breath and found myself wondering what luck it would bring. The bird flew alone in an evening sky emptied by migrating and roosting birds. His long legs stretched behind him as he moved over the harvested field and toward the sliver of moon. His magic floated into the darkening sky.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Between Golden Ears

Sometimes, when I'm riding Lily in the pastures, I stop and take in the farm.
In the big pasture, I see the farm from a view that I can't see from any roadside. How can I capture the open fields and grazing sheep?
Today, I clipped my camera to the saddle and attempted to photograph the farm through her golden ears.
It wasn't as easy as I thought.
First, I had to move back in the saddle so I could capture the sheep and her ears. Then I had to move her head and neck into a straight position. Finally, because I wanted to photograph the sheep, I had to do this when the sheep weren't moving.
Maybe, one just has to experience seeing the world through golden ears.

Monday, October 4, 2010

My Construction Project

I cannot post a photo of my latest project. My husband would be mortified. Significant amounts of baling twine were killed in its construction. Had I been able to find the duct tape, I'm sure I would have used that too. I entered Caeli in a herding trial later this year. Thus, I must practice moving sheep into a pen set up in a field. "I can build a practice pen," I assured the husband. He was concerned that it wouldn't be square, that it wouldn't look nice. I told him it would be in the far pasture, and that the sheep wouldn't critique my construction if there was a dog staring at them.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Warming my Hands

At night, the temperatures are now dipping into the 50s and 40s. The air chills me as I close the chickens in for the night and check on the sheep. My last stop on this nightly routine is the horse stalls. The Haflingers, finished with their hay, are ready to come out of the horse stalls. Before letting them out, I slide my hand under their manes, and pause, taking in the warm air pocket between their mane and fur, listening to the sounds of the night, looking at the stars. Neither mare seems bothered by this intrusion. Lily turns her head and sniffs, bringing a puff of warmth across my face.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Coyotes

The first time I saw a coyote, it was winter. It was hunting in the harvested corn field in the early dawn hours, and at first, I mistook the coyote for Rambles, our Border collie. The coyote hunted like our dog. It pronged and pounced, lithe and graceful. I sometimes go years without seeing the coyotes. Then, sometimes, usually in winter, I'll spot them several times, trotting across the waterway, hunting the hay and corn fields. And, I always marvel at how closely they resemble the Border collie. Not in color, but in size and movement. Maybe that's why I've always had a soft spot for the animals. Or, maybe, I marvel at their ability to adapt to their environment, and to survive. Or, maybe, its that, after all these years, we're still discovering more about this animal that lives among us. Great article in the New York Times about the wiley coyote:

Monday, September 27, 2010

Digging Potatoes

I'd been putting off digging potatoes for weeks. With the weather being so dry, I wasn't looking forward to digging into the ground. But yesterday was cool and sunny, and I knew I finally had to tackle the task. I was rewarded twice for the efforts. The soil, underneath the mulch, was moist and crumbling, perfect for digging around the ground for potatoes. Within an hour, I had three boxes of yellow and red potatoes. I also found a marble -- clear glass, with stripes of green, and a chip out of the side. For a moment, I paused and studied the marble, and wondered when it had been dropped on the ground and lost. Did the child look in the grass for hours for the missing orb? And, did the child mourn its loss? For how many years did the marble sit on the grass, in the ground, before I found it? What will I lose and leave behind that will have people pause and stop and wonder?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Flying into the Wind

Wind gusts reached 50 mph yesterday and carried dried corn leaves and tree leaves across fields that many farmers were harvesting. Firefighters were busy fighting fires that lapped up acres of dried corn and beans. I, though, was watching the birds trying to take flight. Do birds have "wind days" like people have "snow days?" Do they just decide that traveling isn't worth the bother? At what wind speed do birds just give up and decide not to fly into the wind? And, do adult birds welcome the windy days with glee and take their adolescent offspring out for flying lessons?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Simple Pleasures

Dewey Kitty receives a new toy about three times a week. Whenever we open a new carton of milk and pull the tab, he comes running.
He enjoys the fresh plastic tabs that still taste of milk and have spring. After batting them around the floor and carrying them from room to room, they tend to lose their spring.
This morning was a new toy morning.
Hours later, I found him asleep on the futon. The plastic tab was still in his paw.
Was he protecting his tab from the Border collies? Or, more likely, had he played until exhaustion?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

From my office window

I chose the room with windows on three sides for my office. The downside is that it's drafty during the winter months. The upside is my constantly changing view. As I've worked, I've watched the sheep graze. They aren't happy with me right now because I've shut them out of the alfalfa field. However, I gave them access to a pasture mixed with grasses, clover and a touch of alfalfa. They just didn't realize it yet. Sheep are creatures of habit. For four weeks, the habit has been to walk east to the alfalfa field. Tonight, when I let them out, it didn't occur to them to look north. So for 30 minutes they nibbled a low-cal pasture. Then, one of them discovered the open gate to the front pasture with the taller grass. From my window, I smiled as I watched the flock charge to the front pasture.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Weeds and Seeds

When listing pasture weeds, I mentioned thistles. "Why are those weeds?" the pasture expert asked. "Because the sheep won't eat them." "Why won't they eat them?" I wanted to say, "Because they're disgusting" or "Ouch," but I was trying to be somewhat professional. "Because their moms didn't eat them," he answered for me. He then suggested that in the spring, when the plants were small and tender, I spray the thistles with molasses water. The ewes would learn to eat the thistles and their lambs would follow. It worked. The thistle plants are just a few inches high now. As I inspect the sunflower heads in the two chicken yards, I think of those sheep. In the chicken yard with the older laying hens, the sunflower heads still retain their seeds. In the one with the four-month-old pullets, the heads are bare. The young chickens pluck the seeds from the heads as soon as I toss them over the fence. How did the one group learn to pluck the seeds while the other did not? Are the young chickens more adventurous as they learn to forage? Or, is it because the young chickens are confined to the chicken yard while the hens can roam the pastures and find more food options? Would the older hens learn to eat the sunflowers if I spray molasses water on them?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cowboy Dreams

I found the sheep grazing on the rise in the distant pasture. Stopping my horse, I rested my hand on the saddle horn, and was transported back to childhood when I dreamt of cows and lassos, red bandanas and spotted ponies. Smiling, I gazed at the flock of sheep nibbling on alfafa and grass and paying little attention to the horse and rider. Picking up the reins, I nudged Lily toward them. As we walked among the sheep, I heard the lowing of cattle and stomping of hooves.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Storm Clouds

The wind carries dried corn leaves across the farm fields. A few flutter through the yard and onto the next field. The fence catches a few. Tree limbs bend and rustle as the wind picks up speed. To the west, the dark clouds move closer. Surely they will bring much needed rain. After living in the country for more than a decade, I've come to expect rains around fair time in August. Remnants of hurricanes usually bring a few more good rains. But they haven't come this year. I haven't mowed the back yard for two months. The sheep have almost finished grazing the stockpiled pasture. Dust clouds follow the horses as they walk. But those clouds only tease. They deliver a few drops before moving on by. I am left to wait and hope for another chance days from now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Coyotes Call

The yips drifted through the open bedroom room around 3:45 this morning. Apparently the coyotes were gathering near the river. Soon, the barking dogs joined the chorus. I haven't heard the coyotes since spring. Has it been too hot to howl? Or, have they been satisfied with the feast of corn, field mice and rabbits they glean from the fields? Or, I wondered, as I was walking the dogs among the zillions of stars in the clear, still darkness, were the coyotoes just delighting in a perfect fall night?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Garden in September

My garden consists of three tomato plants, three rows of potatoes and a row of sunflowers. I can't bear pulling up perfectly healthy, producing tomato plants. Yet, I vowed weeks ago that I will make no more sauce nor can tomatoes. After eating a few each day, I toss the rest to chickens who eagerly await something juicy and sweet. The potatoes lie in waiting. I'd planned to dig them six weeks ago, but held off until we received enough rain to soften the ground. I'm still waiting. The sunflowers lost their yellow petals and green leaves weeks ago. Yet the stalks still hold the bowed heads. I need to behead them before the stalks weaken and the seeds fall to the ground. I choose that as my afternoon task. After lopping off the head of a sunflower plant, I plucked a seed and stuck it in my mouth. I hope the chickens didn't see the look of disappointment on my face moments before I tossed the sunflower head to them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Horse Whispers

Two fences and twelve feet separated the horses. But that didn't keep Lily nor the new horse from sizing each other up. I didn't see any evil eyes, flattened ears, kicks or posturing. I heard no squeals. But, somehow, they determined the new horse was the dominant mare. That settled, my Lily went back to grazing.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Recycling Station

When walking by the trash and recycling area at a recent outdoor wedding, I thought nothing of the signs and containers for clear glass, brown glass, aluminum, plastic silverware, burnables. I, too, live in the country where trash disposal choices are limited. We could pay the high price of weekly trash collection. But that would involve hauling trash cans to the end of a quarter-mile driveway, and hoping to not find the trash scattered by animals or bored teens. Unfortunately, some folks still have a "farm dump," usually at the edge of their farm, where they throw their trash. We opt to take our trash to the town dump, now called the Transfer Station, every few months. Because we pay per pound and must store it until the dump run to town, we sort trash. We have containers for glass, aluminum, cans, plastics and newspapers. We keep a burnable bag for cereal boxes, cardboard containers and such. We compost and feed food scraps to the dogs and chickens. That leaves little trash left to haul to the dump.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Open Windows

Our house has 25 windows. I know this because during the summer months, I'm opening and closing them twice a day. We don't have central air conditioning, so we open the windows at night to cool the house. In the mornings, I close the windows and close the shades to keep the sun and outside warm air from heating the house. In the spring and fall, my routine is opposite. I open the windows during the day to warm the house, and close them at night to keep the inside temperatures from falling into the 50s. But, for a few weeks, in late spring and early fall, we enjoy open windows, day and night. We are reveling in 70-degree days and 50-degree nights. During the days, warm breezes sweep through the house and carry the scents of harvest. On some nights, the cool airs bring the smells of campfires and burning leaves. I welcome it all.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An Early Harvest

On this post-Labor Day Tuesday, I'm okay with putting away the summer whites. But I'm not quite ready for the dried yellows and browns of dormant and dying plants nor the rumble of combines as they chew their way across the corn and soybean fields. A hot dry August means harvest is early this year. Or, at least is beginning early. As I walk across the fields, I notice the curled green grass among the withered vegetation, the cracks in the field, the puffs of dust clouds that follow my feet, the hard ground, and I'm reminded of a similar time in late August five years ago. Then hurricane season hit, and somehow, those far-off storms delivered a much-needed drink of water.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Finding Breakfast in the Chicken Coop

When I enter the hen house in the mornings, Trick the Cat follows me. He's searching for his breakfast, too. As I pull warm eggs from underneath hens, he hops onto the roost and catches a sparrow. With bird in mouth, he trots out the hens' door, across the yard, over the fence and into the garden. As I marvel at his speed and stealth, I wonder if he'll ever rid the hen house of all of the sparrows.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Discoveries in the Horse Stall

I don't check the automatic waterer in the sheep stall often. It is at horse level, so the Five Virgins don't use it. Apparently some other critters do. When I peer into it, I see little black tadpoles swimming in the water. How did they get there? As I ponder this, I also wonder what to do with them. Surely they can't get out of the metal bowl.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Watering the Cracks

We haven't had much rainfall for weeks. Dust clouds follow the sheep as they trot to the faraway alfalfa field. Each evening, I check my little patch in the garden where I planted spinach seeds. The plants aren't quite an inch high. As I water them, I gaze at the cracks that snake through the garden, threatening to gobble up those tender young plants. How much water would it take to fill those cracks?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Out Behind the Chicken Shed

When I was in junior high, many boys settled their differences after school at the "tracks." The railroad tracks were located behind the school, just off school property and mostly out of sight of school teachers and administrators. So, I snickered yesterday when I went to the barn and saw the group of four-month-old wethers -- teenagers in lamb years -- head butting and rearing behind the chicken shed, and out of sight of their mothers and the rest of the flock.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Herding Lessons: Light vs. Heavy Sheep

When I call our sheep light, it has nothing to do with their weight or hair color. Some of our sheep -- especially The Virgins, the yearling ewes who spent the year growing instead of having babies -- are carrying a few extra pounds. While some are light-colored, several sport red, brown, tan and spotted coats. When it comes to herding, though, they are light -- very reactive to dogs and people. Because of this, Caeli, our Border collie, has to work them from a greater distance than she would a heavy sheep -- usually the wool breeds. So when she brings the sheep to me, she must slow to a walk and stay about thirty yards from them. If she gets closer or goes faster, they will bolt. And, they, hundreds of pounds of flesh and hooves and limbs, will not seem light as they're coming toward me.
[Taking photos of herding practice proves to be a challenge -- especially when I'm trying to keep an eye on the dog and the sheep and the camera. But here are a few attempts. Trick the Cat often joins in the fun. He likes to pounce Caeli. She, being a true working dog, treats him like the flies -- and ignores him. In her world, it's just her, me, and the sheep.]

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The County Fair: The Draft Horse Show

I fell in love at the county fair. It was six years ago, and I was horse shopping, and I couldn't take my eyes off those golden ponies with the white manes and tails. A lot has happened in those six years. I now have one of those golden girls, and our two older horses are deceased. And, so I'm shopping again. My husband and I attended the Friday evening draft horse and pony show at the fair. The evening was all hitch classes -- single drafts and ponies pulling carts, teams of two, then four, then six, and even a team of eight ponies. The crowds were still as plentiful as they were six years ago. The number of exhibitors, though, had dropped to half. It's still a respectable number, but where 15 entries would be in the single cart class, there were seven. To show in these classes takes a lot of time -- and money -- and people helping out. Not only are people transporting four or six horses to the show, they're also bringing carts and wagons. Many use semi-tractor trailers to haul the horses and equipment. But, the crowds really do appreciate it. They clapped, not just for the first place winners but for the group, and others placing as well. As for me, I remembered again why I love those golden ponies. Let the shopping resume.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The County Fair: The Poultry Barn

When we walk into the poultry barn, we see the history of poultry production over the past 100 years. On one side are the white chicken and turkey breeds used in today's factory farms. The birds are designed to grow fast (chickens go from hatched chick to dinner plate in seven weeks) and have feathers that are easy to pluck. When I look at them, I see why some people call poultry dirty and disgusting. To grow that fast, they have to eat a lot and not move much. If they eat a lot, they also have a lot of waste. Feathers that are easy to pluck upon butchering also fall out when the birds are alive. Humans' desire for white meat and cheap food has created some messed-up breeds. We walk past these birds to see the heritage or fancy breeds -- the ones that used to populate most family farms. The birds range from the small, but mighty bantam chickens, to the standard size birds like our Buckeyes, to the larger ones, like the black Jersey Giants. Colors range from white to buff to speckled to reds and blacks. These birds are more alert and active than their modern, white brethren. These birds are why so many fall in love with their backyard flocks. As I look at the Speckled Sussex, the Barred Rocks, the feather-footed breeds, and the Buff Orphingtons, I realize that our Buckeyes, with their reddish-brown feathers and tiny combs, seem plain in comparison. But I like their demeanor, and they do great as free-range birds on the farm. From the chickens, we move to the turkeys. The heritage, or old-style breeds, don't have the big heavy breasts of the white factory farm birds. Their colors range from reds to browns to black, and my favorites -- lilacs and blue slates. I toy with the idea of adding turkeys to the farm. Then we move on to the geese, ducks and guineas.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The County Fair: The Sheep Barn

What struck me about the sheep barn was the empty space. It seems fewer and fewer kids are taking market lambs to the fair. But, that coincides with national trends. Sheep production in the United States peaked in the late 1800s with about 51 million sheep. Now, this country produces about 6 million sheep annually. Blame the drop on synthetic fabrics. Blame it on Americans love of chicken, poultry, ham and beef. In our area, sheep production is quite rare. With our wide open fields, farmers would rather plant corn and soybeans. But there are still some folks who keep sheep. Though, no sheep at the county fair looked like ours. Our Katahdins are smaller than the breeds at the fair. While the market lambs there were in the 120-pound range, our market lambs are about 20 pounds lighter. Our sheep also have intact tails. A few people had sheep they were showing in the breeding class division. Most were the larger sized breeds. A few rams were almost waist-high. "I wouldn't want to wrestle that," I say, noting I'm glad we stuck with the Katahdins.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The County Fair: The Goat Barn

When I first fell in love with goats a quarter of a century ago, the dairy breeds -- LaMancha, Nubian, Alpine, Toggenburg, Saanen and Obehasli -- filled the barns at county fairs. The does, or females, were used for milking and the males, or wethers, were castrated and used as market goats. When I visited the fair this year, the Boer goats took up most of the real estate in the goat barn. The Boer goats, originating in South Africa, are a meat goat known for their fast growth and heavy muscling. They are a favorite of the 4-H kids taking market goat projects. However, it seems like the trade-off for fast growth and meat production is less curiosity, friendliness and playfulness. When walking through the barns, it is still the dairy goats demanding attention from the spectators. The Alpines are climbing the sides of the pens, twisting their heads in the air. The Nubians, still my favorites, are standing on the sides giving me the "pet me" look. My husband and I stop to talk to and watch an acquaintance milking an Alpine, one of 11 that he milks. "This is my best milker," he says. "She produces about 15 pounds a day." I calculate the number in my head. That's almost two gallons. When he finishes with her, he brings out another. "Now, the fair is stressing her," he says as the goat climbs onto the milking stand. "She's not producing much this week." Changes in diet -- they had gone from grass to hay, heat and stress can impact milk production. He says if I want to get back into goats to contact him in the spring. I laugh as my husband and I walk to the sheep barn.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The County Fair: The Dog Barn

Tag is sleeping now, worn out from two days of working the crowds in the dog barn. I lost count of how many faces he licked, how many hands rubbed his ears, how many people asked "her" name. Tag loves spending time in the dog barn at the county fair. For two days, he does when he does best -- greet people, sit for petting, and wag his tail. The local county fair is the only one I've been to that has a Dog Barn. On most days of the fair, people can walk through the barns and see dogs. On some days, it's 4-H members' dogs. On others, it's the local dog club's dogs. Throughout the day, the local club offers dog sport demonstrations. Tag sees those as secondary reasons for being there. He'll run the agility course, slowly and deliberately. He'll participate in the relay race. But his job is greeting people. He welcomes them all -- from the young kids who walk by shyly, wanting to pet the dog and are too afraid to ask, to the children, blue-lipped from their snowcones, who rush up to him, to adults who make kissy sounds at him, to the man in the wheelchair who talks about the Border collie he had when growing up on farm.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Sounds of Autumn

While bird song signifies spring, the insect chorus tells of autumn's approach. Temperatures were hovering around 80 when I walked into the waning evening light to close the chicken coops, remove Lily's fly mask and give her a bedtime snack. The insect chorus was overwhelming. Think rock concert, not symphony. Bug activity is in overdrive now. Gnats swarm tomatoes, melons, pears, my beer. Moths dance just a few feet above the pastures. I keep a vigilant eye out for the wasps and hornets that love to nest near gates, metal farm equipment. Early morning dew highlights the spiders' work -- on trees, fences, draped between weeds. What I haven't seen yet, but what I look for, is the willy worm -- the caterpillar with the stripes that predict the winter to come.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lily and the Sheep

I think Lily is in love with the sheep. If not in love, maybe attached.
If asked, she wouldn't admit it. She's too proud a pony for that. She wouldn't sink so low as to care about those fuzzy creatures that are so close to the ground.
But, she let her guard down yesterday, and I saw, not once, but twice.
Our pastures are set up in a u-shape around the house. From her paddock she can see all of the pastures except the one in front of the house.
That's where the sheep were grazing yesterday morning when she was pacing the paddock and calling and calling. She has become used to having the sheep around, and she wanted them back.
I suspect she finds comfort in having other herd animals around.
That was the case last evening at dusk when the main flock of sheep were back at the barn, but the Five Virgins and Lily were still on pasture.
Earlier this week, I'd separated the five yearling sheep so that I could use them for herding practice. When separated from the flock, the five sheep live with Lily -- sharing pastures and water buckets.
Lily has never been a brave horse. At dusk, she doesn't want to be out in the pasture alone. Apparently, she had herded the Five Virgins to pasture, and then blocked the gate back to the barn.
So, when I found them, she was grazing contentedly, and the Five Virgins wanted desparately to return to the barn.
Once, I put a halter on Lily and started walking back to the barn, the sheep also raced to the barn.
"You, my dear," I said, scratching the pony's withers, "are a funny, funny girl."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back to the Chick House

While I was cleaning barns this morning, a juvenile red-tailed hawk circled the pullets' pasture. I ran over to check on the chickens and found them inside, huddled under nesting boxes, behind the grain can, in corners. A head count revealed all were there. The older hens paid no attention to the hawk. Was it their experience or size that kept them roaming the pastures. How big is big enough? I don't know the answer to that question. I do know the pullets are big enough so that Trick the cat is no longer a threat. He walked into the chicken yard and laid down. Cockerels puffed their feathers and squawked, but everyone seemed to understand it was all for show. But I'm going to play it safe. The chicks return to the confines of their house for several days. Hopefully that will give the juvie hawk time to find someone else to taunt.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tentative Steps: Pullets Venture Outside

The chicks are 13 weeks old now, officially pullets and cockerels. A few cockerels are crowing. Most sound like teen-age boys, but one sounds like a rooster. We can finally look in the coop and differientiate the pullets and cockerels. Like in the sheep barn, it's been a female year in the chicken house. Of the 20-plus young chicks, only five or six appear to be roosters. This weekend, we decided they were big enough to go outside, that the cat and hawks would hopefully leave them alone. For 13 weeks, these birds have walked on sawdust. A cardboard box, and later, a chicken coop, contained them. Their view of the outside world was through doors screened in chicken wire. Their diet consisted of grain and tomatoes, melons, and other garden scraps. On that first day, they took tentative steps outside. They stayed near the chicken house. When scared, they ran back to it. When I opened the door on the second day, they scurried out, and walked through the yard, searching for bugs, eating weeds, chasing one another. They were ready to take on the world.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


News reports promised spectucular meteor shows -- up to 100 per hour. And so, when Dewey awoke me at 3 in the morning, I drug myself out of bed, grabbed a blanket and called Tag. Together, the Border collie and I walked to the hayfield. I put down the blanket and stretched out so I could take in the sky. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the stars multiplied. I listened to the sounds around me -- the crickets, the insects, the fans from the factory farms, the occasional semi-tractor picking up speed as it neared the state route. A meteor fell across the sky, leaving a white trail. And I waited some more. They weren't streaking at the rate of one per minute, and I wondered if they would pick up speed, if clouds were blocking some views. That's the thing about meteor showers. There is no camera or person saying, "Look here." A meteor could come from anywhere in the sky. There's no music to build climax, to tell of the falling star. They happen when they happen. And, if you're a person in a hayfield, staring at the night sky in mid-August, listening to the crickets chirps, you just may catch a little of the magic.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mother Nature's Showers

I haven't been happy with Ma Nature lately. I'm not a fan of heat, humidity and bugs, and that's been her daily special for most of the summer. But she plans to appease me -- and others -- later this week. Oh, it's still going to be hot and buggy, but we'll also experience the meteor showers. I never appreciated the showers until I moved to the country where light pollution is less and the stars seem to stretch forever. The best viewing is supposed to be between 4 and 5 a.m. Friday morning. So, the dogs and I are planning to stroll to the middle of a hayfield, sit down, and be enveloped in the quiet and the stars falling around us.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mandy the Foster Dog

When Mandy came into the rescue program, we could only say, "Poor Dog."
She'd ended up in a shelter, matted and about 25 pounds overweight. She weighed 67 pounds and was as tall as our 37-pound Tag.She huffed and puffed as she walked, and clearly looked miserable.
That was a month ago. Now, she's still a tubby-butt, but she's losing weight and feeling better.
She's been eating two-thirds of a cup of diet kibble morning and night. On her lucky days, she gets fresh green beans. And, I've been taking her on the morning strolls around the hayfields and pastures.
At first, she only walked. But lately, she's been romping, and rolling, and chasing the other Border collies. She can't keep up with them, and she still lacks stamina.
But we're now calling her The Happy Dog.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Ear-Tagging Audience

When tagging lambs, we try to avoid a human audience. Avoiding the animal audience is tougher. When sorting sheep, we take the llama out of the flock and place him in a horse stall. With his long neck, he's able to watch, but not touch and interfere with humans. Throughout ear tagging, he paces and whines. Our other audience member is Lily, the Haflinger. She finds ear tagging much more interesting than grazing -- which means the flies must be bad or she must be VERY bored. I suspect it's a combination of both. She's one of the most curious horses I've known. So, as I'm squeezing the lambs between my legs, I feel a nose nuzzling my back. "Move over please. You're blocking the view," she says.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tagging Lambs

With the yee-hawing and laughing coming from the barn last night, you wouldn't guess we were tagging lambs. Past ear tagging have left me cursing -- and one year, left me lying in the grass, looking in the sky, and proclaiming, "I'm not concussed." That was after a ram lamb jumped while I was leaning over him. He knocked me in the forehead and gave me two black eyes. Ear tagging may be my least favorite lambing job. That seems strange coming from a girl who pierced her own ears. But I'd rather do vaccines, nail trimming, and deworming over that. It's the one of the two sheep jobs I leave to the husband. Thus, I procrastinate about doing it. But, since the night was a touch cooler, we decided to de-worm the lambs. While we were doing that, it made sense to punch the numbered scrapies tags into their ears. So, the husband held the three-to-four-month-old lambs while I squirted dewormer into their mouths. Young lambs are unpredictable. Some jump and fight being constrained. Some accept the dewormer. A few give up and go limp. The first few times this happened, I was sure I'd killed them. Now, I laugh, and shake their heads a little. "Come on baby, it's not so bad," I tell them. After giving the dewormer, it's the husband's turn to punch in the ear tags. The USDA vet showed me a handy way to constrain lambs while tagging. She straddled them, and gave them a squeeze between their legs. They weren't going anywhere. That's what I did last night. I also held my right hand over the lamb's head. No more having a lamb rear up and hit me in the head. Most lambs respond well to this restraint. A few buck and squirm and knock me off balance. I throw my hand in the air, yell yee-haw, and imagine riding the bronc for 10 seconds. And then I remember. The lambs only weigh 50 to 60 pounds, and my feet never leave the ground.

The Rotation Stops

For four months, the sheep played musical pastures. I moved them one from pasture, let them graze it some, and then moved them to the next. This kept mowing to a minimum and also kept the grass from becoming overgrazed. The rotation stopped this week. They are now stuck in a small, mostly-fescue grass pasture and are eating hay. They'll stay there until a pasture recovers and is six to ten inches high again. With the hot weather we're having, it could be for four to six weeks. When managing pastures, I don't let the grasses get grazed to below a few inches. The reason is that when grasses are grazed this low, it takes them a long time to recover. In the long run, it's better to pull the animals off of them and feed them hay. When cooler, wetter weather comes in the fall, the sheep can go back on the pastures and have grazing time into winter. The downside is that the sheep are becoming noisy when they see me. They equate me with food, and have started that incessant baaing again.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Everyone has a goat story

We watched the meat goat sell for $2,000, then drifted to the dairy goats at the county fair. The two goats stretched their heads toward us. We obliged and scratched their ears. "I had a Nubian once," said the woman in our group. "Smart thing. Figured out how to unlatch the door and get into the house." "I had an Angora once, for thirty seconds," said another. "I had one that chewed off three horses' tails," I said. Turning to the septuagenarian, I asked, "You ever have goats?" The man smiled and shook his head, "Yep, had a few at one time." The four of us now had sheep and Border collies. But, at one time, we'd all tried goats, and had enough goat stories to laze away time at the county fair.

Friday, July 30, 2010


For the first time in weeks, I donned a sweatshirt for my morning walk. Temperatures dropped to nearly sixty degrees overnight. I walked into the richness of dawn -- the sky bathed in pink, the heavy green alfalfa fields, the golden wheat stubble, and the black and white Border collies romping in front of me.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The morning groom

"I haven't ridden this month," I confess to a horsey friend. Heat and biting insects make riding unenjoyable. "Lily seems quite content with her daily grooming," I say. My friend looks at me. "You groom her every day?" Now that she's an only, I do. When horses are together, they groom each other. They'll nibble and scratch on each other's withers and backs. Lily has to rely on me for her morning grooming. As I curry her neck, she stretches out her neck and her lips quiver. On those muggy, hot days, she'll sometimes return the favor and scratch my back and shoulders. After a good brushing, I spray on coat conditioner and fly repellent and put on her face mask. If she had a buddy, he'd help keep the flies at bay. "I'm looking for a friend for you," I promise her every morning. I give her a treat and going on with my day.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Teen-aged Lambs

When I was walking home from berry picking last night, I saw a few lambs running, jumping and twisting in the field.
The heat finally broke yesterday, and while I won't say it's cool, the change has many critters kicking up their heels.
I stopped and watched the lambs perform their evening zoomies. They seldom do that any more. The amount of evening play seems to correlate with their nursing.
When they relied on their moms for most of their nutrition, they had more time to play. Now, most of their calories come from grazing.
Now, the ewes' role is to provide comfort when sleeping and ruminating, and limited nursing. The lambs are getting too big for nursing, but they aren't quite ready to give it up completely.
They are about 100 days old and could easily be weaned by now.
Some farmers wean lambs at 60 days. However, to reduce chances of mastitis in the ewes, many opt for 90 days. Some wait until 120 days.
Last year, we weaned at 120 days (four months) because we didn't want to chance a ram lamb breeding with a ewe. Then, we only separated the ram lambs from their mothers. The ewe lambs were left to nurse. By five months (150 days), the ewe lambs had weaned themselves.
Because the ram lambs are castrated, they will be left with the flock this year.
(Pictured are the lambs nursing this past week.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Rolling in the Clover

Sometimes the critters are smarter than the humans. We're in high summer now, with temperatures reaching into the 90s during the days and not cooling much below 70 at night. This week, I've heard quite a few humans complaining about the clover. When temperatures get hot, the grass goes dormant, but the clover keeps growing. Humans complain that it makes their yards look bad, that it messes up their golf game. Many are out to kill the clover. But the clover is fertilizing their yards and pastures. It's putting nitrogen into the soil -- for free. The animals love the clover. It's tastier than dormant grass and packs a lot more nutrients. Plus, it provides some relief from the heat. The clover is sucking water from the soil, and the water is cooler than the air temperatures. That's why the dogs lay in the clover patch, why the sheep graze there during the day. That's why I sometimes take off my shoes and walk through the yard, marveling at the coolness when walking through the clover.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mid-Summer Discoveries

When the birds are in full chorus, the insects are buzzing, the lambs birthed and on their own, the garden producing, and the grass growing, I sometimes fail to notice the changes around me.
But this morning, I heard an adolescent squeak coming from the young chick house. The chicks are nine weeks old now, and in full feather. One tried to crow this morning. It came out a pathetic two-syllable squeak. But it put me on notice. They're no longer chicks. It's pullets and cockerels from now on.
In the garden, too, I found changes. Among the green tomatoes, I found a hint of pink. Tomato season is coming.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Sunflowers

The sunflowers are the bright spot in my garden right now.
They reach six-feet tall, maybe higher, and greet the morning sun. I can't help smiling when I see them, and I wonder if the chickens and humans will fight over the seeds come fall.
Everything else demands my attention. I harvest the cucumbers, green beans, and onions. I pull weeds and squish the cabbage worms that seem intent on devouring my plants.
While holding seven summer squashes, I wonder why I planted them. I enjoy the occasionally squash, and the harvest is far more than that. I throw the squash to the ground and stomp on it. Picking up the flattened squash, I toss it to the chickens who eat it greedily.
"You can't have the sunflowers," I tell them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Three-Fan Night

Alaskans may brag about those three dog nights -- when winter temperatures plummet and three dogs are needed to keep a human warm. In Ohio this summer, we've had many three-fan nights -- when temperatures don't drop below 70 degrees and the house doesn't cool off in the evenings. So, each night before bedtime, I turn on the two fans in the windows and the ceiling fan. It moves the warm air around enough to make it bearable to sleep.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Beans and Berries

I've been thinking about child labor.
We have a bumper crop of wild blackberries, green beans, heat and humidity.
As I swat mosquitoes and pull a thorn from my thumb, I think $5.50 for a quart of picked blackberries is a pretty good deal.
As I pull beans from the vines, I think this is only the first step. Snapping, washing and freezing the beans will come later in the day or week.
But then I consider the whining that comes with child labor, and resume my picking in silence.
I could have had silence this afternoon as I snapped the beans. Instead, I opted to listen to an audio book, with no interruptions. But a few hours into it, I again found myself considering the merits of child labor.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July Harvest

In the mornings, I pick the cucumbers, summer squash and green beans for the humans. For the chickens, I pluck the tomato worms from the plants. I squirm as I drop the plump, green slugs into the can of scratch grain. If I were into equality and fairness, I would search the plants until I had 13 worms -- one for each hen. But the sun is rising and work beckons. Six worms will have to do. I let the hens out of their shed and dump the scratch grain and worms onto the ground. A hen spots the green worm, snatches it in her beak and runs from the group. As she slurps the worm and clacks her beak, I note that she eats the worm with much more gusto than I eat my harvest of cucumbers and beans.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Life without Dogs

It's "I gotta go close in the chickens for the night" instead of "Let's go do the evening chores," and "I should check the pastures" instead of "Let's go exploring." We returned from vacation late Saturday night and couldn't pick up the two Border collies at the kennel until Monday morning. So, we had a day without dogs, a day when the farm was quiet and lonely. Chores went quickly though. I fed and watered the chickens and sheep without having to pause to watch the dogs run hot laps around the house and play tug with the Frisbee. I didn't have to remind Caeli to stop harassing the ram and the rooster, to get out of the garden. The wildlife enjoyed the respite from dogs. Bunnies munched brazenly in the yard. I found raccoon scat while mowing. I imagine the bunnies and coons will be moving on now. Most don't like the daily herding or harassment of dogs. I, though, like the dogs tagging along, the excitement about going out to do the chores, to take a walk, to work in the garden. I smile as I listen to the eight dog feet and four cat paws padding after me as I go to my office to work.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Garden in late June

The garden exploded overnight. Two and a half inches will do that. The sunflowers are four feet high now, and some of the tomato plants are three and a half feet. Some have blooms. Others have tiny green orbs. Tomato season is still weeks away. The wet summer has made weed season constant. Luckily, the soft ground makes hoeing easy. After tackling the weeds, I turn my attention to the lettuce. Nature is telling it to go to seed. I pull the plants and pluck the leaves. I won't have lettuce again until the fall crop comes on toward the end of August. But I'll have cucumbers. I lift the leaves and find dozens of three-inch cucumbers. Let the season of cucumber salads begin.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Barn Help

I decide to take advantage of the cooler weather and clean up the manure from the paddock area.
Lily offers to help.
As I'm scooping manure, I hear the rake fall. Then I hear crunching noises. Lily is chewing on the plastic tines. Not satisfied, she plops her front foot on the rake and paws it. I shoo her away.
She walks over to the muck bucket and mouths the rope handles. Soon she's swinging the bucket around. Again, I shoo her away.
She steps over to the area I've just cleaned and makes a deposit.
And I wonder about my animals, past and present, and their sense of curiosity and how they can't leave things alone.
Have I inadvertently trained them to do these things? Or, have I selected them and loved them for these traits?

Friday, June 25, 2010

...And the Farm Sighed

We've been experiencing the rains of April and the heat of July for most of June. That means everything and everyone is hot and sticky, and the bug population is quite robust. But finally a cold front moved through, dropping the humidity and the daytime temperature to 80 degrees. And I sighed and slept soundly. The lambs remembered how to romp. Lily, the pony, grazed without stomping and swishing at flies. And the Border collies proved they could be even more energetic. Caeli herded rabbits. She circled brush piles, went through brush piles, and did it all over again. After returning from her walk, she focused on herding the rooster. "Didn't we work sheep this morning?" I asked her. Her tongue hung out the side of her mouth, and I could hear her panting. She plopped in the grass, rolled on her back, and smiled.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wet Feet

I look at the shoes lined up in the mudroom and think Imelda Marcos.
Except my shoes aren't pretty, pink and polished. No, mine are decorated with dirt and decay. I hate wet feet.
When living on a farm, this becomes a problem, especially on summer mornings when the dew doesn't leave until 9 or 10 o'clock. By that time, I've often gone through two, sometimes three, pairs of tennis shoes.
Don't suggest rubber boots. They're uncomfortable, especially for long hikes through the hay fields. And they make my feet sweat. So then my feet are hot and wet.
So, over the years, I've developed the tennis shoe hierachy. I have my gym shoes -- those are the clean ones that go to the gym. Then I have the tennis shoes to wear out and about. Then come the just-retired gym shoes that are suitable for going to the dusty fairs and festivals.
Finally, I have the barn tennis shoes -- four pairs -- that are stained with grass and dirt from farm chores, grass mowing and gardening. The inside heal lining has worn away, and the laces are frayed. When the soles on the barn shoes separate and flap, they are thrown away.
It's not a perfect system. My feet still get wet. But I most always have a dry pair to change into.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weaning the Husband

When the husband returns from feeding Lindsey the Bottle Lamb, I notice he is cupping the bottle and holding it on his far side, away from me. Lindsey is in the final stages of weaning. In the evenings, she is now receiving four ounces of water. In the morning, she receives six ounces of diluted formula. In a few days, she'll receive water only morning and night. Then, it'll be nothing. The husband is taking it hard. On his return trip from the evening feeding, I can tell he doesn't want to linger and talk with me. Suspicious, I ask to see the bottle. He holds it, cupping the bottom. But I can see the white liquid in the bottom.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Country Grapevine

While walking the dogs in the hayfields this morning, I stop to pluck ripe raspberries from plants growing in the fencerows. Rolling the purple berries over my tongue, I savor their juicy, wild flavor. Once home, I go to the garden and pluck cabbage worms from my two brussel sprout and two broccoli plants. How did those cabbage worms find my four plants? I've never planted brussel sprouts, cabbage, or broccoli in the garden. These must be the only four plants in a half-mile radius -- maybe more. Do these pests have some type of network? Radar? I place the worms in a cup and offer them to the hens who show only mild interest in the worms. It is the time of plenty, and the worms are small. I imagine they are waiting for the arrival of the tomato worms, which have no trouble finding my plants.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Country Drive-Thru

As we were driving along the almost two-lane country road, we spotted a woman on a riding mower who had paused along the ditchline. She was picking and eating wild raspberries. My friend and I laughed because we've both paused mid-step when we've spotted those dark purple berries, and plucked a quick snack.