Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Inefficient Farmer

As I carried four flakes of hay to lambs in the front pasture, returned to the barn with a bucket full of ice and walked back to the pasture with a bucket of water, I thought of a farm planning book I'd read years ago.

Minimize your steps. Efficient farmers design their layout so that few steps are involved in the daily chores.

I didn't follow that advice, and for the past month, I've been highly inefficient, and walking thousands of steps during morning chores so that I can offer hay and water to lambs in one pasture, to breeding ewes and a ram in another pastures, and to dry, or unbred, ewes that I use for sheepdog training in a third pasture.

It's not like this most years.

Most years I schedule the lambs to go to the butcher in early November. But scheduling conflicts pushed the date to December, when the pastures have little grass left and when water freezes overnight.

That changed this weekend when the lambs went to the butcher; I then moved to the ram and wether to the barn and merged the ewes into one flock.

On Monday morning, I walked 10 steps to feed the horses; 15 steps to feed the ram and his friend, and 15 steps to feed the ewes.And, with chores completed and extra time on my hands, I lingered in the barn, petting the cat, watching the ram nibble his hay, burying my hands under the horse's mane, and still the model of inefficiency.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Memorable Death

We were on the first round of sangria during the 19th Annual Cookie bake when my mother commented, "The oven is locked."

Checking the oven display, I saw it had gone into self-cleaning mode, and the door wasn't going to open.

"My cookies are going to burn," she said.

I pressed buttons, and then combinations of buttons, but the oven did not turn off. Nor did it unlock. It just got hotter and hotter.

The convection/traditional double oven is built into a cabinet, so there is no easy way to unplug it. Flipping the breaker switch and cutting power was the only solution.

But, even with the power off, the oven refused to open.

My mother suggested I look at the owner's manual.

I opted for a Google search and discovered articles that suggested I hit the "cancel" button. My oven is 18 years old and built before engineers thought a "cancel" button might come in handy.

Another article suggested letting the oven cool.With no power to it, the oven was no longer heating, but, with no fan operating, it wasn't cooling quickly either.

I grabbed a fan.

"You can't use that until you clean the dog hair out of it," my mother said. Rather than look for a screwdriver to take apart the fan, I found another fan.

And then we waited, and I sipped more sangria.

When the oven cooled, I flipped the power back on, waited and listened as the oven lock disengaged. Looking inside, I found no cookies.

Crisis averted, I pre-heated both ovens. After placing a tray of cookies in the bottom oven, I set the timer. My mother put her cookies in the top oven.

We chatted. We sipped sangria. I looked at the oven and discovered it had once again locked and gone into self-cleaning, super-high temperature mode.

I flipped the breaker.

With no fan to vent it, smoke rolled out of the oven and into the kitchen. I could keep the smoke at bay if I turned the oven's power back on, but the cookies and parchment paper would continue burning.

With the oven in death throes and the house filling with smoke, we decided to cut the cookie bake short.

When my husband returned home and the oven finally cooled, my husband retrieved his tool set and disengaged the lock. And, I took the only photo from this year's cookie bake.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

November Sunsets

Dusk does not linger at this time of year,

Not like July,
when a sunset walk takes me around the pastures and hay fields,
allows me to linger at the pond,
and listen to the bullfrogs,
and wonder when darkness will ever come,
so I may fall into bed, tired after soaking up so much sunshine.

Tonight I am in the wheat field, just minutes from home,
taking the dogs on their after-work walk,
and pondering work, chores, holidays, life.
When I look up, the dogs are silhouettes.
By the time I return home,
I'll be lucky to spot white-tipped tails.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Chicken Wars

Getting chickens to accept a new home is easy.
Just move them to the coop at night.

When they awake, they'll know it's their new home,
and they'll return to roost in the evening.

Unless they don't.

For the past few weeks, I've battled the chicken wars.

We have two chicken coops on the farm. With winter approaching, I thought it best to move them to the larger, more weather-tight hen house. On a moonlit night, I carried each hen to her new home. A few murmured as I placed them on their roosts in the coop, but most dozed through the process.

In the morning, I let the chickens of their new coop, and they foraged, wandered and found the horse and sheep barn to their liking.

That night three returned to the hen house.
Two perched on the horse stall doors.
Seven took up residence in the ram pen.
Five huddled in the horse's stall.
Two nested in the sheep stall.

By moonlight, I moved them to their coop.The following morning, I fed them in the hen house and waited until mid-morning to let them out. That evening, I again found the chickens nesting in the sheep/horse barn.

Maybe I need to make the chicken house more inviting.
Maybe they need more time to acclimate to the coop.

After cleaning out the coop. I spread new wood shavings on the floor, and then gave them an extra bag of shavings for good measure. I left the chickens in the coop for three days. Before letting them out, I closed the doors to the ram stall and the sheep stall.

That night, 13 chickens returned to the chicken coop. Five found the open door to the horse stall. My husband and I gathered the five and returned them to the chicken house.

Last evening, before dusk, my husband closed all the doors to the barn, so the sheep, horses and chickens could not enter.

All hens are now sleeping in the hen house. The sheep and horses are sleeping outside, under the stars.

I am certain the chicken wars are not over.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Dog in the Mirror

We have few mirrors in our home, so it is quite possible that Niki reached the age of 2 without seeing her reflection.

That changed during a recent hotel stay when a full-length mirror on a bathroom door caught her image.

She stopped and stared briefly, then walked to the other room to find that dog. Not finding it there, she peeked through the hinges. Still no dog.

She did not linger too long with the dog in the mirror.

After all, it couldn't be as wonderful as her.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Pitcher or the Lazy School Horse?

Jack, the Border collie, arrived with lots of sheepdog trial and farm experience.

But I had to figure out the language of Jack.

At home, we started working with voice commands and have been trying to switch to whistles. We tested our progress during a sheepdog trial over the weekend.

The first run was not pretty. We got around the course, but he missed many of my commands, and we missed getting the sheep through the panels.

Jack the Pitcher?

"You looked like the catcher out there, and Jack, the pitcher," a friend observed. "You were giving commands, and Jack was shaking them off until you gave him one he liked."

Like many dogs, other animals, and humans, Jack favors turning one direction over the other, and he doesn't like to go off balance.

Jack the School Horse?

"You've got to think of him as a lazy school horse," his owner and trainer said. "He knows how to do the work, but he's a bit laid back. If he doesn't take a command, scold him a little, he'll do it."

I'm not sure what analogy worked, but I marched to the post on the trial field on Sunday with a different attitude--and, though there was some fussing at one panel, he moved the sheep through all three panels. We left the field with a much higher score.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

No Longer the Only Ones

For years, roosters in the countryside around us were an oddity.

Few people kept farm flocks of chickens, and even fewer kept roosters.

One of our Buckeye roosters

The case for keeping hens is easy: fresh eggs with golden-orange yokes. The case for keeping roosters is harder: they don't lay eggs and often attack. But I like watching roosters strut around the pastures and listening to the roosters crow. And, if we want chicks, we need roosters to fertilize the eggs. So we always keep a few roosters.

Because we live in the flat lands, the roosters' crows roll across the countryside, carrying for up to a mile. Their crows join the cacophony of birdsong, hawk calls and cricket chirps in the early morning hours.

This summer, though, the sounds changed. When my roosters crowed, they got a response, first from a farm to the north of us, and later, from a farm to the east. The sounds caused me to stop walking.

I stood in the pasture, looked at the stars that had yet to fade, and listened to the call and response. 

We were no longer the only ones with roosters.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My Summer Friends

Hydrant Toad

When I step into the horse's stall, I keep my eye out for Jet's Toad. This not-so-little guy spent his summer in her stall, eating bugs. And, I've been tip-toeing around, being careful not to scoop him up with the manure.

Outside the stall, near the water spigot, is Hydrant Toad. She climbs out from her gravel nest when I'm emptying and refilling water buckets.

And, in the garden, there is Mr. Toad who sits under the cucumber vine.

Mr. Toad

I've come to appreciate the toads that spend the summer in flower beds, under trees, in the garden and in the barn, gobbling up insects. A single toad can eat 10,000 over the course of summer.

They aren't as graceful as the insect-eating swallows that soar and dive over the pastures and ponds. But they are much more amenable to having their photos taken.

 Like the swallows, they will disappear this fall. The swallows will be gone within the week when they start their annual trek south.

The toads, though, will stick around for another month or two. Then they will burrow underground and hibernate until spring, when the insects return again.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Venturing into the Garden

This is what my garden looks like after three weeks of high temperatures and humidity followed by one week of rain (4 inches), heat and even more humidity.

The weather broke this morning, and I ventured into the jungle.

There have been years when I've given up on the garden in mid-August. Instead of reaching for a hoe, I get out the mower.

But I was feeling optimistic this morning. A drop in temperature and humidity can do that.

I weeded the raised bed, and then sowed lettuce and pea seeds.

Then I moved onto harvesting. When picking cucumbers, I found Mr. Toad.

 He agreed to smile for the camera.

When picking tomatoes, I heard a demanding cluck. The hens know that when I'm in the garden, they get the split tomatoes, the overripe cantaloupe, the foot-long zucchini.

I tossed the hen a few split cherry tomatoes and watched her swallow it whole.

Soon, she had friends.The beggars were in luck. Heavy rainfall during tomato season usually causes the tomatoes to split. I had lots of split tomatoes.

I still have plenty of weeds in the garden, and the potatoes are ready for harvest. But that will come another day.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sometimes, a Shovel is the Answer

With the dry weather we've had this month, our pastures are browning--but they are thistle free.

For a decade, I've been battling the pants-piercing, skin-stabbing thistle. This is one tough, painful weed, and the horses and sheep want nothing to do with it.

On my drives through the country, I've seen this thistle take over a pasture, and I'm determined not to let it take over ours.

When it first appeared, my first defense was regular mowing. The thistles came back fuller and stronger than ever.

Next, I tried spraying them with a solution of vinegar, water and dish detergent.

Before treatment

After treatment

The thistles returned, and I upped the ante with Round-Up, a chemical I try to avoid using. Again, the thistles wilted, browned, and later returned.

The problem, I realized, was that it was hard to coat the entire plant with the chemicals.

So a few years ago, I changed tactics and got out the shovel.

Every month I walk the 11 acres of pastures and dig up thistles. Last year there were fewer thistles, and this year, the number dwindled again. On my walk this weekend, I only found a dozen thistle plants. Maybe, just maybe, the shovel is the answer.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Perfect Tomato

Tomato season is here, and so is the debate about the perfect tomato.

The Black Pearls, black cherry tomatoes, began ripening about a week ago. A few days ago, I picked my first full-sized tomatoes--the Paul Robesons. A Russian heirloom, they are described as black tomatoes, but their color ranges from a smoky red to a glossy green.

The tomatoes pictured are all ripe and ready for eating.

I describe their size as perfect. They're baseball size, fit into my hand and are the right size for a single serving.

Most black tomatoes have a flavor that is salty, rather than sweet or tangy, and these are no exception.

I describe them as a perfect tomato.

But because I like variety--and like tomato salads composed of a mix of colors, I've planted other varieties. I'm waiting on other blacks, reds, pinks and green tomatoes to ripen.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Cat Days of Summer

During the Cat Days of Summer, when the temperatures climb to 90 and the insect popular explodes, the sheep, horses and chickens while away most of the day in the barn, and the cats overtake the back porch.

Trick snoozing on the back porch.

The concrete is cooler than their usual napping places in the barns.

Leslie the Cat on the back porch.

House flies, gnats and even the lumbering, buzzing horse flies seem to leave the cats alone on the back porch.

Roxie perched on the stoop.

If snoozing on the back porch, they have to exert little energy to find their next meal--cat food served on the porch.

But their is one cat who chooses a different place for his siesta. Dewey Kitty comes inside and stretches out where I, too, would like to while away the hot summer afternoons.

Dewey Kitty snoozing under the ceiling fan in my office.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Zucchini Solution

Mama Hen and her three chicks inspect a tomato, their first of the season.

Because it is summertime, and I have a garden and a flock of chickens, I am a picky produce eater.

When I find three zucchinis that grew a foot overnight, I don't make them into bread or mix them with cheese and bread crumbs. I simply break them in two and toss them over the fence to the chickens who cluck in delight.

Is that cucumber past its prime? Over the fence to the chicken yard it goes.

Tomato have a spot on it? The mama hen and chicks will love it.

In my Before Chicken years I felt compelled to use or give away everything I grew in the garden. The 2-ft. long zucchinis and bushels of tomatoes that I had no time to process took away the joy of gardening and eating fresh produce.

But now that I have chickens, I take joy in tossing the excess and damaged produce over the fence and watching them gobble it up. And, I can savor the six-inch tender zucchini, the perfectly ripe tomato, the crunchy, snack-sized cucumber.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

You Can't Eat Flowers

For years, I grew vegetables, herbs and fruits, but never flowers.

You can't eat flowers, I reasoned.

But then I started working for a garden company, and employees get plants for dollars, cents and sometimes free.

Our yard is big with ample space for plants.

So, I added raspberry and blackberry plants along the fence rows, planted strawberries, tried popcorn, and yes, dabbled with flowers.

I followed many of the same rules I did with veggies and livestock: there's no babying. I looked for easy care and big rewards.

Daylilies made the cut. Roses did not. Coneflowers were a shoo-in.

I planted flowers near the back porch and other places where I walked daily, so I can see the flowers and the bees they attract.

But what I didn't do was have a master plan or even a map. So I am often surprised by what I see.

And I find myself stopping and admiring the colors, the blooms, the bees they attract.

But I still find myself stopping at the raspberry patch and nibbling berries, and walking through the veggie garden, admiring the blooms of the black zucchini plant and anticipating the taste of fresh veggies.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Llama Shearing Gone Bad

Note to self: Before the vet arrives, make sure that the shears work.

Apparently over winter, the hand shears were bent, thus making them useless for cutting llama hair.

I discovered this after the llama was sedated.

But I am resourceful, right?

Note to self: Office scissors aren't made for cutting llama hair.

I completed an 18-inch patch before the scissors gave out.

Looks like I'll be calling Valley Vet for another pair of shears and I'll soon be able to answer the question: can I give Llambert the Llama a haircut without sedation?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

...And There Goes the Weekend

I walked into the hen house tonight, and two fluffy yellow heads and one watchful hen greeted me.

When I returned with a camera, one chick had buried itself under its mama. The other one was cautious, but curious.She kept peeking out from under her mama's wing.

Mama Hen will stay on her nest for another day or so, until she's sure there are no more chicks to hatch. After hatching, chicks can survive 72 hours without food and water. This allows Mama Hen to stay on her nest and complete the hatch.

Inside the house, I have another distraction--11 hot chicks in the bathroom.

I had placed eggs in the incubator, and the chicks began hatching on Tuesday morning. In a few days, I'll repace the newspaper with cedar shavings and soon, they'll go to the chick house.

But for this weekend, I will be taking a break from planting the garden, from cleaning the horse barn, from weeding the flowerbed, from mowing the pastures, to watch the chicks.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Killer Frost

Weeks ago, I succumbed to temptation of warm days in early spring and planted eggplants, peppers and herbs that I usually plant in late May.

Last night I was in the garden, assessing the damage from a hard, late spring frost.

The buckwheat that I'd planted as a cover crop died. As did the pepper plants that were covered with just a light layer of straw. The potato plants that were peeking through the straw are questionable.

The eggplant and basil that I'd covered with a heavy layer of straw survived. And, of course, the peas are thriving.

And so I did what gardeners have been doing for generations.

I spent the evening in the garden. Mornings that produce frosts often turn into bright, sunshiny days and calm evenings that linger into sunset. It was a perfect evening to be outdoors.

I pulled weeds that survived the frost quite well, and I dug in the dirt and marveled at the earthworms, and watched the lambs romp in the pasture, and listened to the birds. I planted tomatoes in the dead buckwheat patch and made plans for more plants.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

How to Stop a Flock

With rain in the forecast, I did what I'd done dozens of times.

I sent Raven, the Border collie, out into the pasture to round up the small flock of dry ewes (those without lambs at their side) and bring them through a six-foot gate, through the yard and into the paddock with an overhang.

As I opened the gate, the calico barn cat rubbed against my legs and rolled in front of the gate.

I snatched her up and put her on my shoulder where I could pet her and keep her safe from the sheep who were trotting toward the gate.

That cat brought the flock to a stop. The lead ewe eyed the cat that spent its days rubbing against the sheep and llama in the barnyard.

What was it doing on my shoulder? Was this some kind of trick? Would that cat attack the flock?

The lead ewe would happily walk by me; she would walk by the cat; but she would not walk by me with a cat on my shoulder. And, until the lead ewe walked forward, none of the other ewes would either.

Cat on shoulder, I took a few steps away from the sheep and flanked the dog back and forth, until finally the ewe was convinced it was safe to move forward.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Wailing Lamb

I take great joy in looking out my office window and seeing ewes and lambs grazing in the pasture.

As the morning moves on, the lambs tire of grazing and nap. The ewes though, still nursing lambs and needing calories, keep walking and gobbling up grass.

I write and watch as the ewes move down the hill. Most lambs follow.

But one, snoozing in the morning sun, does not.

When he awakes, he sees no ewes or lambs. They've all moved about 50 yards down the hill.

He does what lambs do, what we adults would like to do when things are not going our way.

He stands up and wails and wails.

As lambs grow older, the ewes respond less and less quickly to lamb wails. A 30-day-old lamb calling for his mother only elicits a couple "over here" baas from mom before she returns to grazing.

The lamb wails again, hoping she'll come.

She doesn't.

Giving in, he lopes toward his mother and other sheep. The lambs and sheep return to munching grass.

And, I return to my work, happy to be diverted by lambs.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Hen vs. the Human

The Buckeye hen senses that is is spring and time for chicks. Every day she lays an egg in a nest in the hen house.

When I realize she's gone broody, I give her a few extra eggs and let her sit.

She takes her job seriously and turns the eggs daily so that they chick doesn't stick to one side. Once a day, she leaves the nest to eat and drink.

I, too, sense it's spring and time to incubate chicks. I collect eggs and place them in a carton in the workshop. I elevate one side of the carton and turn it every day.

Until one day, when I'm not paying attention, and I drop several of the eggs.

But I am persistent and go about collecting eggs.

When I've collected 30 eggs, I add water to the incubator and plug it in. The perfect conditions are 100 degrees and 58-60 percent humidity.

It reaches 99 degrees. I put the eggs in and turn the temperature a little higher.

I planned to go back and check it again. But I'm distracted by the garden, the horses, the sheep, the lambs, the cats. Hours later, I go to bed, tired from an evening spent outdoors.

In the morning, I remember the incubator.

The temperature reads 104 degrees.

I fried my eggs.

I've resumed collecting more eggs for the incubator. Meanwhile, the hen sits, waiting for the peeps that indicate she has chicks.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Spring Sweet Spot

For a few weeks in spring, the grass is green, the air is warm, the birds are singing, and those flies, mosquitoes and gnats are still sleeping.

For those few weeks, I enjoy long dinners on the back porch, hanging out in the barn, and planting in the garden.

Yesterday, when the temperatures climbed into the 70's, those few sweet weeks of spring were over.

A few flies landed on the sheep. I found a few more around the horses' eyes. The mosquitoes are sure to follow.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Yard Solution?

Some people have their ah-ha moments while in the shower. Mine happen when cleaning horse stalls or mowing.

The longer I'm doing one of those tasks, the better, or more outrageous those ideas become.

Our house is surrounded by pastures and fields of hay, soybeans and corn. Because we don't like stepping outside and into a corn field, it has a large yard.

Over the years, we've planted trees, which provide windbreaks and shade. They also lengthen the mowing time.

Last fall, while mowing and battling pine needles and cobwebs, I had one of those ah-ha moments.

What if we turn the sheep into that section of the yard?

The electric fencing netting arrived this week.

Time will tell if it is a brilliant idea or a big fail.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Llama Love

When we were considering a llama as a sheep guardian a decade ago, people advised to get one llama, not two.

A single llama will bond with the sheep; two llamas will bond with each other.

For a decade now, Llambert the Llama has watched over the barnyard and pastures. He's learned who belongs and who doesn't. He raises neither a lip nor twitches an ear when he sees our dogs in the yard, but a visitor's dog sends him into alert mode.

And, he's learned to tolerate the Buckeye chickens who roam the farm and think nothing of hopping on his back.

Or maybe they've come to an agreement: a soft, warm roost in exchange for a back massage.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Roosters

I'm spending a lot of time walking backwards in the paddock and pastures these days, keeping my eye out for attacking roosters.

It is springtime, and the two Buckeye roosters have become quite territorial. While they're fine with the llama, sheep, horses and cats around the barn, they've decided I'm a threat, even though I feed them morning and night.

And yet, I keep them around, because I love hearing their crows morning, noon and evening; and I'd like chicks this spring.

And I keep them because, when I'm not fending them off, I find myself stopping to admire their feathers shimmering in the sunlight.