Sunday, May 30, 2010

Summer Siestas

I'm not a napper. Unless the temperatures rise into the high 80s. Then I'm all about bringing back afternoon naps. Our farmhouse is not air conditioned. We open the windows to let in the nighttime cool. I arise before daybreak, which comes early these days, work through the morning and into the afternoon heat. Then, somedays, I nap for an hour or two, and continue on until the sun falls below the horizon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Always a Bottle Baby

When I walk into the stall at six in the morning, Lindsey, the bottle lamb runs to me. As I squat to feed her, I'm surprised to see two white yearling ewes racing toward me. One sidles up to my left, the other to my right. They are Annie and Regina, last year's bottle babies, who apparently are conditioned to come when they see the glass bottle with the red nipple. But once positioned in front of me, they pause. As adults, they've lost their ability to suckle, to digest milk. They aren't sure what to do as they stand in front of me and Lindsey, the much smaller lamb, sucks away furiously. By evening feeding, they've figured it out. Annie does what comes naturally to an adult ewe when there is an annoying lamb nearby. She swings her head and tries to push Lindsey out of the way.

Monday, May 24, 2010

We Interrupt This Activity

About an hour before dark, my activity stops. I find myself sitting atop a horse, leaning against a hoe in the garden, standing on the back porch, to watch the evening spectacle: the lamb zoomies. While their mothers graze, the lambs, nineteen in all, participate in a pickup game of tag. The rules change nightly, depending on what pasture they are in. In the field with the barrel, they choose to race around it. Last night, they raced from the pasture, through the gate to the paddock, and back out again. It's chaos. Think twenty horses breaking from the gate in the Kentucky Derby. Except the lambs have no rules against bumping and colliding. At six weeks of age, they aren't nearly as coordinated as a three-year-old horse. So, I watch, and laugh, as the jumble of color -- the whites, the reds, the tan, the spotteds, the browns, and, of course, the black and white lamb, race through the gate. Once in the paddock, they jump and prong and swerve and collide as they turn to race back out. The leaders are constantly changing. This goes on for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. When over, the lambs are panting. A quiet then settles over the farm as the ewes, finished grazing, return to the paddock. The lambs nurse for a final time, then curl up next to their mothers for the night.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Broody Hens

When I enter the hen house, four heads peer from the nesting boxes. I don't know how long they've been sitting there. It could be hours. It could be days. At this time of year, many hens go broody, and insist on sitting on the nest -- whether there are eggs under her or not. When a hen goes broody, she doesn't lay eggs. She sits. She seldom leaves the nest. She eats little. It's a great weight loss plan... if you're willing to sit on a nest and do nothing for a month. Because a broody hen doesn't lay eggs, chapters have been written on how to break the hen out of the broody cycle. One suggests putting the hen in a cage and hanging the cage from the ceiling. A logical solution would be to put eggs under her and let her hatch chicks. I've never had luck with the latter. I've never tried the former. I, being in low maintenance mode, just let them be. And so when I collect eggs, they squawk in protest. A few ruffle their feathers. Most roar and peck my hand when I reach under them in search of eggs. "I love you too," I growl back at them.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why Prey Animals Don't Herd Sheep

We watched the storm roll in as we sat eating dinner on the back porch. Lily, the Haflinger, trotted a circle in the pasture and nosed the Five Virgins. The sheep complied and walked toward the barn. But the 850-pound Lily couldn't hold them there. About three minutes later, the sheep, finding no food in the barn, ambled back out to pasture. Again, Lily rounded them up and nosed them toward the barn. We suspected she wanted company in the barn. As a prey animal, Lily takes comfort in the herd. Having no other horses for company, she has decided the sheep will do. If only she could persuade them to stand in the barn with her and wait out the storm.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bottle Feeding Lindsey

Trick the Barn Cat likes to sidle up to Lindsey during bottle feeding. After rubbing against her, he noses her face and licks the milky froth from her mouth. She was having none of that this morning. When he jumped into the stall, she stopped drinking, charged toward him and stomped her tiny hooved foot. He eyed her. She stomped again, and he jumped to the railing. After she resumed guzzling, that's how she drinks nowadays, he again attempted to slither next to her. Again she stomped. With each stomp, she convinced me that she's going to make it in this world.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It Depends

I'm heading off for my ultimate chick weekend -- watching the Bluegrass Classic Stockdog Trial and shopping for horses.
My husband offered to handle critter care when I'm gone.
In the winter and summer months, critter care is pretty basic. Give them hay or let them out to pasture.
During the spring months, it's often weather dependent. Some of our pastures have more clover than others. During rainy weather, I try to limit grazing on the heavy clover pastures, and balance their diets with some hay. Over time, it comes intuitively to me. But when I try to write it down, my critter care lists has lots of asteriks and other notes on it.
When reviewing it last night, my husband just looked at me.
"If you don't want to deal with it, close them in the pastures close to the barn and give them hay," I say. "It's only for a few days."
And yet, I think he still prefers the chore list to horse shopping.
(The photo is of Lily, my mare who is shares in my excitement about horse shopping).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lindsey the Milkaholic

I spend five minutes, three days a day, sometimes more, squatting in a stall, holding a bottle, and watching Lindsey (my husband named her) suck the bottle.
Sometimes, the lamb's twin brother, sidles next to me for a good back scratch while I'm feeding.
The lambs' mother often stands at the far end of the stall, watching.
Most people, me included, will say bottle lambs are a pain. At two and a half weeks old, Lindsey eats four, sometimes five, times a day. Soon she'll be down to four bottles, then three, then two before she's finally weaned at two months.
Bottles lambs are noisy, bleating for milk when they see a person. They climb and paw at humans, which is cute at fifteen pounds, and not so at fifty. Plus, they can be prone to digestive issues. There's absolutely no economic reason to feed the bottle lamb. Yet, year after year, we do. There's been Dee, Trey, Annie, Regina, and now Lindsey.
And I seldom complain. I wonder if it's because, there's something mesmerizing about that furious sucking, the wrinkled nose, the pale eyelashes.
(Lindsey is the lamb whose mother rejected her. After holding the mother for ten days, we decided she wasn't going to accept her. )

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Figuring it Out

"Uh oh," my husband says when he sees the two sheep reference books in front of me.
"Just researching ram lamb management," I tell him.
In the past, we haven't castrated the ram lambs. We let them grow, separated them from the ewes at four months, cursed them at five months when they started challenging each other and me, and sent them to market at six months.
The problem was the fighting at five months -- and that sometimes we had a ram lamb that needed an extra month or two of growth before he went to market. What did I do with him while he grew? I couldn't let him near the ewes, and I couldn't put him with the ram.
"You wouldn't have the fighting if you could keep them in a pasture where they couldn't see the ewes," my vet points out.
We have six paddocks for the sheep. The ram lambs could never be in a pasture adjacent to the ewes. This made pasture management difficult.
"I think we're going to try the wether thing this year," I say. If the rams were castrated, they could live with the flock.
When raising sheep, I"ve discovered that every farmer does it differently. Some lamb only in January, some in March, some in May. Some feed grain. Some believe in pasture only. Vaccinations and deworming schedules vary greatly.
When making management decisions, I read the two sheep care reference books. One, I call, "They're all going to live," and the other is, "They're all going to die." I also chat with the vet, who, lucky for us, grew up on a sheep farm.
During the castration research, I discovered that most agreed on the castration method, banding. However, the "when" varied from three days to two months of age.
For our experimental year, we settled on seven to 21 days. Partly, that was logistics, as that was when the vet was visiting and could show us how to do the procedure.
At the end of the year, we'll re-evaluate and make decisions for next year. Eventually, we'll figure out what works best for us and our flock.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Llambert Gets a Haircut

"What kind of hairstyle do you want?" my husband asks.
He is holding the hand shears -- think Edward Scissorhands -- and walking toward the barn. The vet had sedated the llama for hoof trimming and shots, and now my husband was going to begin shearing off the llama's winter coat before he awakes from his drug-induced sleep.
I am the practical sort. The llama needs a haircut. He will awaken in 30 minutes. It is dinner time, and I am hungry.
"Kindergarten chic," I say.
Ten minutes later, after settling up the bill with the vet, I walk into the stall where my husband is clipping the llama. Brown hair covers the stall floor.
I offer to clip. We use hand shears -- which are sharp and effective. There's just a lot of llama hair. Clipping involves grabbing a clump of hair and cutting. I try to leave about an inch of hair. This, I figure, gives him protection from flies.
Once finished with one side, my husband grabs the llama's leg and I support the head while we flip the sleeping 360-pound llama to his other side.
I sigh as I see the mass of brown.
We continue clipping.
Once finished, my husband takes the shears and tidies up the haircut. He trims the stray hairs and tries to even it out. He likes the llama and wants him to be the handsome centurion.
Sometime during dinner the llama awakes and stands. When we return to the barn, we find a still groggy llama.
"It's a tough life," I tell him. "You awake and find your hair missing."
When I return him to the sheep pasture, the sheep give him a look, but know better to laugh at his new haircut.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Before the Vet Visit

When we just had horses, preparing for the vet visit was easy. I caught the horses, groomed them and put them in stalls. Catching the horses usually involved calling them and slipping a halter over their head. Neither the sheep nor llama are that well-trained. For this visit, I must catch the llama and put him in a stall. Then, I must catch the three three-week old ram lambs that are with the flock of sheep. I know three things about the llama: he doesn't want to be caught; he kicks; he spits. His job is to guard the sheep. In his mind, both the Border collie and I are predators. My first task is to separate him from the sheep. I count on the llama lagging behind when I move the sheep from the pasture. Once the sheep are through a pasture gate, I shut the gate. Now I have the llama in one pasture and the sheep in another. The sheep naturally meander toward the barn. Once I have them in the paddock, the fun begins. I want to drive the sheep into a stall in the barn. Sheep are easier to sort with they are in a smaller area with solid walls. If this were fall, with older sheep, this would be simple. With Caeli, my Border collie, nearby, we'd herd the animals inside. The lambs and ewes with lambs make the job difficult. There are nine ewes and ten lambs in the flock. I must catch the three ram lambs. Caeli stares at the sheep. Rather than being afraid of the dog, the lambs are curious and want to check her out. The dog's eyes cross when the oldest ram lamb walks up to her and sniffs her nose. I stomp and he backs off. The sheep flock together in a corner outside the barn. The dog and I move closer and wait. We want to apply just enough pressure so they walk into the barn rather than bolt and scatter. Godiva, the mother of two lambs, gets irritated and walks toward Caeli and stomps. Caeli continues to stare. The ewe backs off. We wait. I can be patient. Caeli can stare all day. Sensing this, the ewes and lambs move into the barn, and I shut the door behind them. Caeli's work is done. Now, I must sort the lambs. The stall is a double stall with a door between the two stalls. I am delighted when a ewe and four lambs walk into the second stall. I shut the door. Now, I'm in an eight by eight-foot area, and the lambs are in easy reach. I catch the three ram lambs and carry them, one at a time, to another stall. The sheep sorting is done. Now, I must turn my attention toward catching the llama.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Soloist

As I walked this morning, I marveled at the lightening blue sky, the smell of wet grass, and the cacophony of bird sound.
Hundreds of birds of all types were greeting the cool, sunny, May day.
Then above it all, lilting across the morning air came the sound that carries for a mile, maybe more. The rooster crowed, announcing a perfect day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Horse Power

This week has been about horses.
I'm reading Why We Ride, a collection of essays about horses, and loving the stories (and not just the one about Lily and me).
And, last night Lily returned to the farm after a two-month stint at a friend's barn.
So, this morning, when I walked into the barn to tend to the sheep, an animal was actually tall enough to reach over the Dutch door and look at me.
While she appears happy to be home, I think she'd like a friend other than sheep. And, I think I'm finally ready to start looking for another golden horse.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Miss Lily Returns

I spend the day moving sheep from the horse stall, cleaning the stall, checking the automatic waterer. Lily is returning from the boarding barn today. I look around the farm and marvel how it has changed in the two months that she's been gone. The grass is green, the flock of sheep has doubled, the area around the paddock has a fresh layer of crushed limestone, and the mud is gone. Her pasturemates -- the Five Virgin Ewes -- have shed their winter coats. They've grown a little in size and confidence. Lily, too, has changed. She's shed her heavy winter coat and will return wearing the sleek, red coat of summer.

Spring Pasture

When I look out over the pastures, I see a buffet table.
The sheep and horse's diet consists of grass -- a catchall term for clover, dandelion greens, timothy, bluegrass, fescue, and what else grows in the pastures.
These animals don't eat grain. No corn, no oats, no soybeans for them. A good pasture is enough to make them fat.
So, I spend time walking the pastures, ensuring that they are in good condition. When I look down, I want to see a pasture salad -- a mixture of grasses and legumes, like clover. In other words, no iceburg lettuce wedge for them.
In the photo is a rooster on the spring pasture. The chickens eat a combination of grain, bugs and grass. This morning, they were especially enjoying the tender clover leaves.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


As I sit in the cart, reins in hand, I am reminded of a scene more than a quarter of a century ago. I was 16 and had come to the most dreaded part of the driver's test: backing through cones. Determined to get through it, I backed and stopped and checked my progress, and backed some more and stopped. Each time I stopped, the examiner took another five points off my test. I stopped one too many times and failed the test. Eventually I got better at backing, but never liked it. When I learned to drive a truck and trailer, the backing was and still is my least favorite part. Now, as I practice driving Lily, my Haflinger, the backing, too, is a chore. When I work her, I enjoy working on halts, and walk-trot-halt transitions. I like practicing quarter turns, half turns, 360-degree turns, and figure eights. But, at some point during the session, I know I must practice backing. We've now progressed past backing straight and are working at backing through cones. It's not pretty. I'm sure I would fail the horse driving test. But with practice, I'm sure we'll become adequate backers.