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.