Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Three Walk Signals

Border collies never, ever, choose the couch over a chance to go outside for an adventure.

My pack is finely tuned to any sign that I'm going to take them outside -- and to what our itinerary will be.

"Okay" means that we're going on a walk around our farm.

When I say, "Okay," five sleeping Border collies jump up and run to the back door.

If I want to get them dancing, I pick up the leashes.

That means we're going for a walk at the farm across the road. The prospect of a longer walk around a pond is definitely better than just a regular walk.

Unfortunately, thanks to snow, short days and wicked wind, we don't do as many of those in the winter months. Instead, I've taken the dogs cross country skiing with me.

And, they recognize that sign. When I lace up my cross country boots, they whine and dance.

Because walks in snow are more interesting than walks on frozen ground. When I ski, I take them in hay fields and along the woods. For them, it's a chance to make snow angels, hunt for mice, race through the snow.

Mickey doesn't seem to mind that the snow is getting deeper.She is my snow angel queen. She'll be walking along, bury her nose in the snow, roll onto her back and wiggle.

Tag, as always, stays close. Snowballs seem to love his soft fur.

Caeli is a dog of perpetual motion, dashing from one end of the woods to the other, racing through snow drifts, burrowing her nose in search of mice, and attempting to herd any rabbit that she finds. She is shown here after the walk. Yes, her tongue is hanging out. She is tired.

(Note: Why only three dogs pictured, you ask? It's a lot more difficult to referee dogs while skiing. So, for the sake of harmony, I do two ski trips -- one with the furry, older trio and the other one with the 2-year-old smooth-coated kids.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Haflingers and Snow

The Haflingers are reveling in a cold and snowy January.

Their ancestors came from the mountains of Austria and endured many a snowy winter. With heavy bodies and coats, these mares are equipped for the cold.

Except for feeding time, I don't keep them in stalls. Oh, they can stand in the stalls, but often I find them, butts to the wind, standing in the pastures.

When it snows, they wear a blanket of white. Jet thinks it looks good on her.

Lily was too busy digging through the snow for grass to notice it was snowing.

She says it's the best winter ever because she gets five flakes of hay daily instead of four.

It'd be even better if the camera was a treat.

They say living is easy in the winter months. It's so much better than the hot, humid and buggy days of July.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Leslie: The Mudroom Cat

At the coldest point during the last polar vortex, Leslie the Barncat asked to come inside.

So, I set up a bed, food and water, and a litter pan in the mudroom. After 18 hours, she was warm and restless and ready to return to the barn.

A few nights ago, when temperatures dipped into the single digits, she began appearing at the back door, asking to come inside. I let her stay overnight in the mudroom. In the morning, she was on her way.

This morning, she put her paws down and absolutely refused to go outside.

(Leslie also is not keen about having her mugshot taken. She refused to stand still for it).

"Here's the problem with you staying in the mudroom," I tell her. "I have to move the dogs' water pan into another room."

She snuggled deeper into her blanket.

"Okay, here's the real problem," I tell her. "Heat."

With the door closed, the room only receives a blast of heat when the furnace kicks on -- an infrequent occurrence when we have a fire in the wood stove. No heat means that pipes freeze.

This didn't concern Ms. Leslie.

So, we've come up with a compromise, though she doesn't think so.

For the next cold spell, she's moving to the cellar. Leslie the Cellar Cat has a nice ring to it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

At Some Point Below Zero

I love winter -- the snow and cold. But I don't like when temperatures reach a certain point below zero degrees.

I don't know what that number is. I don't keep an outdoor thermometer handy. But it is the point that the barn water pump stops working because its gears freeze. At that point, the horse waterer freezes, and I am carrying buckets of water from the house to the barn.

Horses and sheep don't seem to drink much water in the winter, until it reaches that point below zero and I'm carrying buckets of water from the house to the barn.

(I'm trying to make an ice wall. My building skills aren't great, but I'll keep trying.)

At that point below zero, Leslie, the Barn Cat, insists on coming indoors -- and Dewey, the indoor kitty, doesn't even ask to go outside.

(Dewey Kitty is resigned to spending his days by the fire.)

At that point below zero, Tag and Mickey, two of the Border collies, hold their paws up because it's painful.

I, too, don't work as well in that weather. I breathe through a face mask, hoping to warm the air some before it hits my lungs. My gloves don't seem to keep my hands warm, and the farm house never feels warm.

It's been a few winters since we've hit that point below zero. But in the past few weeks, we've hit it twice, and we're getting another arctic blast in a few days.

I haven't tired of winter yet, but maybe we haven't hit that point below zero.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bottles Lambs at Ten Months

In 10 months, they've gone from just too cute...

just so adorable....

to teenagers....

to almost grown up...

to still occasionally cute....

to mostly obnoxious.

Yes, that is my knee in the photo... and that is a lamb chest. My dogs don't try to jump up on me, but the 100-pound bottle lambs do. The twin bottle lambs are 10 months old now, and not afraid of people, not afraid of dogs, not afraid of leaving the flock to explore the barn, not afraid of jumping on humans.

We haven't had lots of bottle lambs in the past, but until now, they've been singles. As they grew, they assimilated with the flock.

Not so with the twins.

Oh, they hang out with the flock, but they also are content to hang out with humans.

And, they aren't shy about demanding food or attention.

While photographing chickens for the blog, the dark-faced one jumps on my back.

"Not cute," I tell her, suddenly aware that while I understand how horse and dog mamas correct their young, I have no idea what sheep mamas do.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The January Hay Count

Some days, I see my sheep as the hungry caterpillars.

This weekend, I inventoried the hay supply. With more than three months to go until the sheep and horses can graze pastures, I want to make sure that I have enough hay to get through the winter.

I don't.

The amount of hay that I use each winter depends on several things: the number of sheep, the conditions of winter pastures, the quality of hay, and the coldness of winter.

Our sheep numbers were up, so the pasture condition was down; the hay wasn't as good; and it was -- and continues to be cold.

So, while we might have enough hay to make it through until spring, I decided to play it safe and ordered more hay.

I'm sure the sheep will munch through it.

(Trick the Cat has nothing to do with this story. He was just posing on the hay bales.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hey Chickens! Any Day Now!

Each day, I check the nests.

And each day, I find this.

We've been rationing eggs since late November when the hens took an early holiday and stopped laying.

I broke down this morning, and had eggs for breakfast.

We are now down to one dozen eggs.

They've got to start laying soon, I reason. The daylight hours are getting longer.

They're well-fed.

And they're happy roaming the barnyard.

And yet they don't lay eggs.

"Who wants to sit on eggs and hatch chicks in this weather?" the husband asks.

"But they never go on strike for this long," I say.

Then I consult my notes. Last year, they didn't start laying eggs again until January 30.

"I love oatmeal," I say.

Twelve more days.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Finding Sun on a Gray Day

I have seen the X-ray that shows Mickey's enlarged heart. I know that this could be my dog's last winter.

But my Border collie doesn't.

She only sees sun peeking through the clouds on a warm January day. She spins and twirls around me, anxious to go on the afternoon walk with the pack.

And so we walk, and I take joy in watching the Border collies hunting mice in the hay field and in the January breeze stinging my face.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Oh, the ice is wide, and they can't walk over...

Sheep can't read the weather report. The five ewes only knew that temperatures were rising and the far pasture, with bits of green grass, would be a perfect spot for a morning graze.

They walked across the snow, not realizing that underneath it was a field of ice.

Throughout the morning, as the temperatures rose and the rain fell, they grazed.

Only when they walked back toward the barn did they realize they had a problem.

Between them and the barn was a field of ice topped with a half-inch of water.

Some say sheep are stupid. But these sheep knew that the ice was slick and unsafe.They refused to cross.

I, though, can read the weather report. With warming temperatures, some of the ice would melt, and maybe there would be a place to cross. I opted to wait and see.

But, when I returned home after dark, I saw that the sheep were still standing in the far pasture, and the field of ice was still there.

I grabbed a flashlight and Mickey, my old Border collie. Together we walked into the dark, rainy night. Surely, we could find an alternative path back to the barn.

We did. But it involved taking the long way home -- opening lots of gates and going through several other pastures.

Moving sheep at night can be tricky because often you can't see the sheep or the dog. Adding to the difficulty was that there were still lots of icy patches in the pastures.

I based my commands on sound, and I trusted Mickey. After sending her to gather the sheep, I listened for the sound of crunching snow that would tell me the sheep were moving. Then, I stopped the dog. We did that a lot - move and stop, move and stop - as we worked through the gates and pastures.

But eventually we got those sheep back to the barn and their buddies.

And today, they aren't being let out into the pasture with the icy patch.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Surviving the Deep Freeze

The temperature was stuck at -6 degrees and the winds blew at 20 mph, sometimes faster, and the Haflingers didn't care.

The sun was shining; they'd eaten breakfast; it was time for their midday snooze in the sun. Butts facing the wind, and using the pine trees as a windbreak, they stood side-by-side and dozed.

Temperatures in our area plummeted to below zero overnight Sunday, and stayed below zero Monday and Monday night. Today, it's supposed to warm up to 2 degrees. The winds are expected to gust again today, eventually settling down to a more reasonable 10 mph on Wednesday.

Most of the farm's critters didn't get the memo that it's cold outside.

The sheep, closed inside the barn, are quite happy to be eating the third-cutting alfalfa hay rather than the first-cutting alfalfa mix. And the chickens are inside their hen house, eating grain, and a little bored.

The Border collies are running laps around the house, and anxiously awaiting their long daily walk.

The only critters showing the pains of the cold are Mickey, the old Border collie, and Leslie, the older barn cat. Mickey gets cold paws after about 10 minutes outside in subzero weather.

Leslie the Cat lives in the hay and equipment barn, and must make a daily trek to the back porch or livestock barn for food and water. Yesterday, she was more than happy to come into the mudroom to eat, drink and warm up. But this morning, she is already growing restless with being indoors. This afternoon, when it reaches above zero, I'll let her outside again.

As for me, I'm staying warm carrying buckets of warm water from the house to the barn. But I, too, am looking forward to long walks around the fields again.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Calling in the 35-Pound Power Tool

A winter storm was approaching, and I wanted to move the sheep into the barn.

Surely I could throw some alfalfa hay into the feeders and they'd go inside. Most did.

But Upheaded ewe stood in the doorway, looking suspicious. She was backed up by Neck Roll ewe and Huge, Red Stomping ewe. As soon as I stepped toward the door, they bolted outside and the rest of the ewes followed.

I shooed them back toward the stall door. All went in except for the Big Three.

Maybe if I walked away, the three would go in.

So, I stood watching from a several yards away, in the rain.

The Big Three stood watching me, from the shelter of the stall.

I walked away, and returned with my power tool: Mickey, the Border collie.

She stepped with me into the paddock.

"Come by," I said.

She was two steps into her arc when the Big Three turned their heads and walked into the stall.

"That'll do," I told Mickey as I closed the stall door.

She has enough class not to say: You called me out in the rain for that?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Preparing for the Storm

I'm not worried about preparing for this:


But, it's the rest of the weather forecast that has me worried:




I haven't experienced temperatures this low since we've lived on the farm.

The sheep, horses, llama and chickens usually handle winter just fine if they have shelter, food and water.

I usually don't keep the sheep, chickens or horses confined during the winter months. Animals -- like humans -- are happier if they have room to move around.

On most nights, the sheep sleep outside, under the lean-to. Only when the north wind blows do they decide to come into the barn.

Unless it's feeding time, the Haflingers usually choose to stay outside. They don't seem to mind being covered in snow and icicles.

When the wind blows, the chickens usually go inside. For a few hours each day though, they, too, like to venture outside in the snow.

But when the winds start blowing tonight, I'll move the sheep inside the barn. I'll close up the chicken house so the chickens too will be confined. As for the horses, I'll continue to let them come and go into their stalls.

The sheep, llama and horses will get extra hay -- they'll need the extra calories to stay warm, and I'm hoping it will keep them busy so they don't go too stir-crazy. I'll be kept busy making sure they have fresh water throughout the storm.

I'll bring the old barn cat inside tonight and offer her a place in the basement.

As for the Border collies -- we're taking a long walk today. I'm hoping they won't go too stir-crazy during the storm... But I have bully sticks for them to chew just in case.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Winter Barn Games

When the temperatures dip, the animals' world gets smaller.

The sheep and horses spend more time at the barn eating hay rather than grazing. Without their smorgasbord of bugs and weeds, the chickens retreat to the hen house. I, too, spend more time in the house rather than around the barn and yard.

That leads to one bored barn cat. Luckily, he has the lambs.

The lambs, now nine months old, like to stick their nose between the slats when I'm in the barn.

For Trick the Cat, this means a game of Cat and Lamb Nose. Standing at the base of the wall, he crouches and waits for a lamb nose. When one pokes through the slats, he jumps up and grabs it with his front paws. Sometimes, he'll gnaw on it for good measure. After a few seconds the lamb retreats.

A minute later, the lamb sticks her nose through the slats again, and again is pounced by the cat. The lambs and cat play this game for several minutes before Trick goes hunting for another game.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Retirement Lessons (Or an Old Dog can Teach a Human New Tricks)

I hadn't planned to work Mickey on sheep today. The ground was frozen, and the nearly 12-year-old Border collie with the arthritic feet gets sore working on frozen, hard and uneven ground. Plus, she's had this nagging cough that isn't responding to antibiotics.

I'd only planned to work the young dog today.

But when I pulled on my hat and grabbed my whistle, Mickey whined.

"Okay," I said, as I watched her bounce, puppylike, outside.

I retired Mickey from herding competition last month. She is slowing down, her hearing is diminishing, and some of the sheep are discovering that they can outrun her. But on our farm, the sheep like Mickey and don't question her authority. They don't care about her speed. So a light farm workout couldn't hurt, could it?

Without a command or whistle from me, the old Border collie gathered the sheep and headed to the practice field. I asked for a short outrun and then asked her to drive them away from me. And she went to work.

On the hillside, she stopped, perked her ear and looked at me. I whistled. She looked at me, waiting for a command. I stepped sideways. Reading my cue, she began moving the sheep again. We worked a few more minutes, then I called, "That'll do."

She came running back to me, bouncing, spinning, grinning, pleased with herself.

Kneeling down, I rubbed her ears and told her what a good dog she was. And, as we walked back to the barn, I realized that she still has some things to teach me.