Friday, August 30, 2013

Chore Time: Rising with the Temperatures

As the water from the bucket splashes and runs down my leg,
as sweat runs down my face and back,
as I swat flies,
as I try to remove the hay chaff that is sticking, clinging, to my skin,
I realize that chores time, in late August, when it is 90 degrees,
takes longer than chore time in December,
when the ground is frozen and the temperatures are in the 20s.

Water consumption soars with the temperatures.

At 70 degrees, the sheep, the horses, the chickens, sip. At 90, they gulp. So I must provide more water.

And in late August, when they are growing their winter coats, the sheep and horses need more water to stay cool. So I carry more water.

In August, the forage growth slows, so, in order to save pastures, I pull the sheep and horses off of them and feed hay. So I carry hay -- a hot task made hotter at 90 degrees.

Hay has little moisture, so the animals need more water.

Hay also takes less time to consume, leaving grazing animals with time on their hooves. So, I try to give them an hour or two to graze and move around -- which means moving them on and off pastures, closing and opening gates.

Which all takes time, time, time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where's Trick?

When I pull the wheelbarrow out from under the tarp and find him sleeping there, I wish Trick the Cat was black or white or yellow -- any color other than the browns, tans and blacks of a raccoon or groundhog.

After all these years, you'd think I'd become accustomed to the barn cat showing up almost anywhere. But he still startles me when I find him curled among the feed bags I'm about to move or among the tomato plants I'm about to pick.

By now, I should always assume he'll be in the middle of farm life, wherever that may be.

He often spends the night on the hay and straw bales.

Not only are they soft, warm and dry, but they provide a prime view of the horses and sheep in the barn.

In the dawn's light, he surveys his kingdom.

Telling the chickens and sheep to look at him. And they do because they've been ambushed by him on numerous occasions.

He likes to groom himself atop the fence -- and usually plays a game of chase-my-tail where he wraps himself around the top board.

If I'm working the dogs on sheep, he waits in the tall grass and pounces the Border collie (something I have yet to get on film).

Lunging the horses? No problem, he'll roll near their path. They'll move for him.

Then, he's on to torment the chickens.

A few cockerels notice the intruder, but when Trick doesn't react to them, they go back to eating tomatoes -- which don't challenge them.

 I never know if he likes to torment the chickens or if he is hoping a sparrow will land nearby.

When the sun heats the day, he retreats to the garden where he sleeps among the parsnips....

awaiting a human to torment and rub against.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Second Sin of Summer

The plastic tag said Black Pearl.

But instead of sweet, little cherry tomatoes like these (a volunteer):

 I got this:

These are the worst type of tomatoes -- too big for popping in my mouth and too small for slicing or canning.

But the plant is prolific.

And, so every day, I pick up dozens of tomatoes,

 and offer them to the chickens.

Who are hoping for corn cobs, apple peels and melon rinds.

Most are still eating the tomatoes. But a few are glaring at me.

And I am glaring at the tomato plant that is producing tomatoes that I don't like.

So I do the unthinkable.

I pull up a tomato plant that is in its prime, and offer it to the ram.

I'm sure that sin ranks right up there with killing a mockingbird.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What Every Dog Should Know

Cute can only get a dog so far in this world.

I recently received a request to foster a Border collie for an owner who is having surgery, and I was reminded how situations change and how often dog owners must find a permanent or temporary home for their dog.

Before I will consider fostering a dog, it must pass two tests: it must get along with other dogs (because I have a pack) and it must get along with cats (because I have come to realize that cats rule my world).

But then I got to thinking. As a dog owner, what skills should I teach my dog? Below is my list.

1. How to get along with other dogs (and cats).
2. Housebroken.
3. How to settle in a crate.
4. How to walk nicely on leash.
5. How to greet people properly.
6. How to come when called.
7. How to take food gently from my fingers.
Bonus: At least one trick.

What would make your Top 7 list?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Unicorn Ram Lamb

I now have a not-so-rare unicorn ram.

A few days ago, I came into the barn and found a ram lamb with a red blaze down the center of his face. He also had blood running over his eyelid and down his neck.

And, after years of living with animals who have found all kinds of ways to injure themselves, I just sighed.

He'd probably hooked the horn in the fence and panicked.

When a sheep looses a horn, there is a lot of blood. But there's not a lot that I can do, other than wash the area and apply some fly repellent ointment. Then I try to keep him quiet and calm for a few days while it heals.

And heal it does.

I just hope he's not bothered by being lopsided.

NOTE TO READERS: If you would like to see the photo of the bloody-faced ram lamb, email me.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Jolly Ball is Not a Rain Gauge

If the water sitting in the half-chewed Jolly Ball comes up just past the second joint of my index finger, how much rain did we get?

The puddle in the road in front of our farm told us that it had rained while we were gone, and the few puddles in the horse paddock told us it had been more than a quarter-inch.

But the exact amount, I didn't know.

Our rain gauge broke last fall when we had a cold rain followed by freezing temperatures. I never got around to replacing it.

Instead, I just guessed the amount of rain we received by the water standing in the hay tub or a bucket ... or Caeli's half-chewed Jolly Ball.

As I'm holding the Jolly Ball with the rainwater inside, and trying to think back to geometry class so many years ago, and trying to figure out how to accommodate for the ragged opening on top, I realize it's time to break down and add a rain gauge to today's TSC shopping list.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Living Off the Land

For a week now I've pondered a reader's question: Do you live off the land?

We eat the chickens, lambs and eggs that we raise; but the grain that the chickens eat is purchased at the local grain elevator; the hay that the lambs and sheep eat is grown on the farm, but baled by another person; both chickens and lambs are butchered by someone other than me.

I eat tomatoes, herbs, potatoes, green beans, onions that were grown in the garden. But I rely on farmer's market and the grocery for lots of other food and produce.

We heat with wood from trees that we have cut and split; but we use gasoline to power the chainsaw and log splitter; we rely on heating oil as a backup source of heat.

As far as income, we could by no means rely on farm income to get by. In good years, it may help pay for taxes and insurance.

But as I walk the cut alfalfa field on a foggy morning, I realize the farm is not just a dollars and cents proposition for me.

How do you place a value on the sweet smell of alfalfa curing on a summer morning? Or that "rock star" feeling I get when the chickens come running to the fence for their melon rinds and apple peels? Or eating breakfast and watching the sheep and horses graze in the pastures? Or watching Trick the Cat nuzzle up to confused lambs? Or the walks with running Border collies through the fields? Or seeing the bluebirds and swallows as they flutter about in the morning?

In addition to some crops, the land gives so much joy, satisfaction, happiness, life. So, in one sense, yes, I am living off the land.

Who Knew? No Nose for Tracking

Yesterday, the spouse and I threw the four Border collies in the Honda Civic and drove to the nearby park to walk the dogs and watch a demonstration on search and rescue dogs.

These dogs -- mostly Labrador retrievers and German shepherds -- use their noses to detect scents of people and human remains.

After explaining the search and rescue process, scents and dog training, the search and rescue group asked for a volunteer that their dogs could track.

Of course, the spouse volunteers. Don't we all have dreams of being found by a dog?

So, he hands me two leashes -- leaving me with four Border collies -- and treks off to a field where he will hide. Unbeknownst to him, they weren't going to "find" him right away.

So, I had time to take the four Border collies on a walk around the prairie and woods. We returned and sat in the shade to watch the search dog and handler work.

Eventually, they found the spouse. Whew!

Upon his return, I told the spouse that if the search dog hadn't found him, I'd have sent the four Border collies to look for him.

At which point, he laughed.

"You and the dogs walked with 10 feet of me," he said. "Caeli looked right at me, then turned and went on."

"They're sheep herding dogs," I said. "And you are no sheep."

[Note: Border collies are used as search dogs. Some handlers like their smaller size and agility when doing searches through rubble. But they have to be trained to use that sense of smell... And apparently none of mine have been.]

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

55 degrees in August

It is 55 degrees and Dewey Kitty, the cat that has spent the past three months demanding to go outside and only reluctantly coming back inside, will not get off of me.

He slept on top of me overnight. Now, as I work, he won't leave my lap.

The last August day that I remember as this cool was more than a decade ago, when the 13 Buckeye chicks - our starter flock -- arrived.

I worried and fretted that these chicks would get chilled, even though I had the heat lamp plugged in.

I worry less about the Buckeyes now; they are hardy creatures, built to survive.

"Hey," I poke Dewey Kitty who is sleeping on my lap. "You are covered in fur. You'd be just fine outside."

He curls into a tighter ball, sighs and purrs.

The Surprise in the Chicken House

Living with animals leaves me scratching my head -- and it's not because of fleas.

While training Raven, the Border collie, in the five-acre pasture, I thought nothing of the bleats and cries from the lambs left at the barn. My work group of sheep included a ewe whose five-month old lamb was back at the barn.

But we'd only been in the field for ten minutes. Five-month-old lambs don't cry that loudly for their mothers after a short time.

The crying continued after I returned the work sheep to the flock.

I investigated.

The sound was not coming from the sheep barn. It was coming from the hen house.

The hatch door, usually open during daylight hours, was closed.

I walked inside to find two lambs and Trick the Cat.

There were no hens in sight.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Not Quite a "Nice to Meet You" Moment

When Mickey approached the seven male lambs in the field, the Good Mom triplet walked toward her.

"Hey, remember me from all the times my mom came into the barn aisle for grain?" he asked. "You were the Border collie hanging out in the corner, right?" He wanted to sniff Mickey all over.

A brown lamb faced Mickey and stomped. He was going to protect the flock. Another lamb, inspired by the brown one's confidence, also faced Mickey.

A few lambs, intent on grazing, paid no attention to the dog.

The ram lambs were all new to being worked by a dog. So Mickey had some training to do.

Many times the lambs are introduced to the dog while still with the big flock. When the introduction is done with the elders around, the lambs learn to follow the older ewes' lead and turn when the dog approaches.

That wasn't the case for the ram lamb introduction.

But, at 11, Mickey is an experienced sheepdog and knows how to adjust to her sheep.

When she saw that her steely eyeball and predatory crouch weren't going to intimidate them, she upped the ante.

She air-snapped in front of their noses.

That got several lambs' attentions... but not all. She did a few cutting horse moves, snapping and moving into their space.

They got the picture and turned toward the barn.

When we got to their pen, she had to air snap and cut again.

The next day went better.

By the third, they turned toward the barn when she approached.

Introduction complete.

And again, as I often do, I marvel at what a talented, special dog that Mickey is.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Fall Garden

As the sunflowers drop their seeds on the ground, I, too, am planting seeds in the ground.

Years ago I discovered fall vegetable gardening. The lettuce, spinach, beets and peas that grow so well in late spring, also grow well in early fall.

Many times I've enjoyed fresh lettuce and spinach into November -- and once, in December.

Last year, during the drought and heat, I coaxed a little lettuce and spinach to sprout and grow. But I also battled the rabbits who also were looking for something tender and green.

This year, thanks to rain and cooler weather, I don't expect that problem.

I planted beets, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach and peas on Sunday.

This morning, I found this.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Retro Scrabble

My  mother invited me to play Scrabble with a friend this week.

Sitting at the table with mojitos (definitely not retro), she pulls out the Scrabble game from my childhood. The nickname of my sister's junior high crush is penned on one tile holder. The other tile holders have doodles that are decades old.

She also pulls out the dictionary from my childhood. It is faded red and threadbare.

I thumb through it, careful not to let pages spill from its weakened binding.

"Copyright 1977," I say.

My two opponents, both decades older than me, enthusiastically agree that we should use it.

"We spent many dinners looking up words in that dictionary," my mother says. "It has character."

But it doesn't have ringtone, spyware, biodiesel or bling.

Horns! Where did they come from?

Although we have purebred Katahdin sheep and Buckeye chickens, we sometimes have lambs and chicks that make us question, "Who's your daddy?"

     This year, we have a four-month-old wether who is sporting horns that keep growing and growing.

Our other lambs have no horns.

That wether had to reach back into his family tree to find a horned relative.

The Katahdins breed, like many other breeds, is a conglomeration of other sheep breeds.

Those who are interested in genetics and livestock breeding can learn about the history of the Katahdin breed. I found it quite fascinating. In the 1960s, when the market for wool had plummeted, a Maine man was determined to develop a hair sheep with specific characteristics. To do this, he incorporated several sheep breeds.

When I read his story, I'm amazed at how quickly he developed the breed, and left to wonder what the breed would have become had he not died of a heart attack just 19 years into his work.

Our flock shows glimpses of his past work. Sometimes, we'll have a lamb that sports some wool fibers -- evidence of the wool sheep influence of the Katahdin. This year, the lamb with horns shows the Wiltshire Horn sheep influence. In the past, we've had a few lambs with nubs, but these are the biggest set of horns that I've seen on one of our lambs.

Although horns aren't preferred, this guy could be registered as a Katahdin. His mother and father are two fine registered examples of the breed. But he will not. Instead, market awaits him.

Now, if he were a ewe lamb that was perfect in every other way, then I'd have to think about keeping her. Alas, that is the subject of another blog.

For now, I'll spend my time marveling at the lamb's horns... and telling other lambs not to make fun of him.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Learning Through the Work

Raven and I take lessons; we do homework; we test ourselves in sheepdog trials.

But what really helped the two-year-old Border collie and me progress was monotonous, daylong work.

For several days in July, we set out sheep for sheepdog clinics. This means that I sorted six ewes from a pen of 80 sheep, had the dog drive them to a specified spot on the field, and then watched as a dog in the clinic gathered them. Sometimes Raven and I had to re-gather the sheep on the field and put them in a specified spot. Then we'd rest and repeat -- for hours.

The work settles the dog. If she became excited every time she was asked to work, she'd be one really exhausted dog by day's end.

It also teaches the dog -- and me -- about sheep. Every group of sheep acts just a little different. We both have to learn to read the sheep and react to them.

When doing the routine work, we both improved and gained confidence, and we learned to work together.

So, by the end of the clinics, when I asked her to gather 50 or so sheep, she thought nothing of it.

 And, when I brought her home, we were working much better together.

Photos: The photos are of Raven working sheep at our farm - after the sheepdog clinics.

The Pony Doesn't Forget

Cobwebs hang from the dust-covered bridle.

It's been months since I've ridden.

But last weekend, the weather was cool, the grass was mowed, the garden weeded, and no sheepdog activities scheduled. So I decided to ride.

While the tack may have gathered dust, Lily, my Haflinger, has not.

For several years, I worked her consistently, and those routines and habits became ingrained.

So even though she's been a pasture pony for the past few years, she knew what to do when I pulled that bridle from its peg. She opened her mouth and accepted the bit (and a treat). When I walked her to the mounting block, she stood while I mounted (and turned her head for a treat); then we ambled toward the five-acre pasture for a short ride.

Those days and weeks and months of not riding disappeared with every step.

For, though we may not be in the riding shape we once were, neither pony nor I forget. The routine comes back.

And, after 10 minutes, when she starts lugging toward the fence, I am reminded that her quirks are still present.

Lily never likes to poo on a potential dinner plate. While riding, she always tried to aim for a corner, a fence row, a muck bucket.

So, for our ride, like so many rides in the past, we must sidle up to the fence row so that she can relieve herself.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Buckeyes at Thirteen (weeks)

I want to say, "Have you seen those feet? They're so big, the birds are almost tripping over them."

But I don't say that, at least not near the chicken yard. I don't want to give the pullets and cockerels a complex.

The young chickens are about 13 weeks old now -- and in their gangly stage.

Their feet are too big for their bodies, and they're adult feathers are still growing. A few are attempting to crow. When I hear their croaking attempts, I smile to myself.

I enjoy this awkward stage, when they are eager to explore the world, to peck my fingers, and my shoes, and my pants, and anything else that might move.

They've been outside exploring for the past few weeks now, and are learning about their new world.

They've discovered that Trick the Cat means them no harm when he walks among them, lies down and stretches. And they've learned that people equal food. They now coming running when I walk to the fence.

Soon, they will run in bodies that have caught up with those feet.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Herding Instinct Gone Wrong

   Tag lacks a crucial Border collie trait: power. Thus, he plays Jolly ball croquet.

    The perfect working Border collie is expected to be intelligent and independent enough to make his own decisions about moving sheep -- but submissive enough to listen to his handler; he must have the predatory instinct to gather the sheep -- but not kill them; when needed, he must have the power to stand up to the stock and move it. He also must have the desire and stamina to work.

    Early on, we discovered that Tag is afraid of the sheep. Oh, he likes to watch them from a distance -- and preferably with a fence between him and them.

    But he is smart and obedient and wants to please. And he has the energy to play and work all day long.

  Like many Border collies, he likes to play ball.

  I'm not sure how it happened, but he invented his own game of ball. He takes one in his mouth and uses it to hit another ball.

  I remember the summer he first discovered this trick. It was the same summer we had a hen that liked to fly over the fence and roam the yard.

   Tag hit her with his Jolly ball. She squawked. He worried.

   The hen now stays in her chicken yard. Tag limits himself to just hitting Jolly balls.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Separating the Boys

When I moved the seven male lambs into a separate pen and paddock, they had a good time -- head butting, jumping on each other, chewing on weeds, climbing fences.

But as afternoon waned to evening, the four-month-old boys grew alarmed.





It was getting dark, and while they were perfectly capable of surviving on hay and grass, they wanted a nightcap: just a nip of milk.

And, they wanted to curl up next to their mom and sisters -- all but one had a sister -- and sleep through the night.

And, since they couldn't, they made sure that I didn't sleep through the night either. Though they could see each other through the wire mesh fence, the ewes and lambs called to each other through the night.

But now, on day two of separation, they are missing their moms less and falling into the bachelor lifestyle.