Monday, October 15, 2018

Another Day, Another Training Challenge

But mom, you said to keep the sheep out of the exhaust pen.

My tri-colored Border collie sees the world in black and white.

Niki is the most challenging, most affectionate, cutest and hardest working dog I own. But, she sees the world differently than my other dogs.

At the sheepdog competition this past weekend, I used her to exhaust sheep for the pro-novice class. The sheep weren't so sure they wanted to go into the exhaust, or holding pen, at the end of each competitor's run. The pen was unfamiliar, and sheep don't like unfamiliar.

Niki loved running out onto the field, collecting the sheep and directing them to the exhaust pen. She enthusiastically did her job time and time again.

On the second day of the trial, the sheep no longer saw the exhaust pen as an unfamiliar, scary place. Instead, it was a place where they could eat hay and get away from the dogs.

So Niki's job description changed.

Her job was to make sure the sheep did not get to the exhaust pen during each competitor's run. At the end of the run, though, she was to let the sheep into the pen.

And, that's where she got confused.

She was all into keeping them OUT of the pen at ALL times. That was great when the handlers were competing, but not when they were finished. She was not going to let those sheep into the exhaust pen EVER.

To get the job done, I resorted to keeping her on leash, opening the exhaust pen gate and keeping her out of the way so the sheep could get into the pen.

It's Monday now, and I'm pondering how to help Niki understand that her job description can change every five minutes.

The good news is that she wants to work with me. The bad news is that I've got to figure out her language.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Traveling with Dogs: What we ask

When I loaded up the Subaru, the Border collies saw the open crates and hopped in, ready for the ride. They had no idea that we were traveling for 2,300 miles, or that the journey would take days.

Before departing for California, people asked if I were traveling alone.

"Nope, I have three dogs," I said, adding, "They're great traveling companions. They never ask how much longer, demand a different channel on the radio or complain about my singing."

While Border collies amaze me on the trial field, they really amaze me as travelers, and not just because they never ask me to change the channel.

During my travels, I ask them to ride in crates for hours. When we get out of the car, they may see zooming cars and strangers. Sometimes they work on strange fields on unfamiliar sheep. At night, they sometimes sleep in motel rooms where the voices of people and vehicles can be heard through the walls. Sometimes, they sleep in their crates in the car.

Rarely do they protest. They just adapt.

Oh, there was a 24-hour period when the young dog was miffed about the pottying situation. With no green grass in sight, I asked her to pee on gravel. She just looked at me. Ten minutes later, she decided that gravel was okay.

We aren't in the green fields of Ohio anymore. Gael, now a year old, adapted quickly.

By the time they're adults, most Border collies participating in sheepdog trials have traveled hundreds, often thousands of miles. Although too young to compete, they often travel with their owners and other Border collies, to trials.

I'm sure the socialization helps them adapt.

But the dogs also live in the here and now--and if they're with their human and their pack, then that is where they want to be.

Emma checks to make sure it is Jack underneath all that dirt.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Traveling with Dogs: The Stalker Cow

Traveling with dogs often means spending nights in cheap motels. But on those lucky occasions, I, along with other sheepdog competitors, rent a house.

The best houses are the ones that are within a 30-minute drive of the competition, are set a ways from the road and neighbors, and have an area for walking the dogs. They're also the ones hosted by people who don't blink when you mention that you and your friends are traveling with 12-15 Border collies.

If a home owner is willing to accept people traveling with lots of dogs, then I'm willing to accept to accept some eccentricities, whether it be banjo music, horses mating in the parking area or a stalker cow.

During my recent trip to northern California, our hostess asked us to close the gate after we pulled into the farm so that the cow did not get out.

As we pulled up the driveway, Jax, the cow, was awaiting us. (Jax, a housemate pointed out, is a steer, not a cow. But, for the sake of this story, I am calling him a cow).

"He's friendly," his owner said.

I gave him a wide berth. Fifty years on this earth has taught me to be wary of 1,000-pound animals that I do not know.

Jax watched as we unloaded luggage and dogs, and bellowed intermittently. To make his presence known, he defecated behind my friend's van.

In the morning, the cow was nowhere to be seen.

I walked the older dogs in the moonlight. Not seeing the cow, I got out the young dog and moseyed down the driveway. Jax appeared and followed us.

The dog and I sprinted back to the house. The cow followed and took up his usual spot near the garage.

As the week wore on, we got used to the stalker cow, always watching, often bellowing.

On our last morning at the house, he was not there to greet us in the morning.

"I kind of miss him," my friend said.

And, just like that, he appeared.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Competing at the National Sheepdog Finals

Sheep at the National Finals.

I wish I could say that my run at the USBCHA National Sheepdog Finals went as I visualized.

But seven years of sheepdog trialing has taught me that things don't always go as planned. In this sport, no two fields are alike; no two groups of sheep are alike. Weather conditions change. The best handlers and dogs react and adapt to the changes, but even that doesn't guarantee success.

The open field at the National Finals.

In the smaller fields in the Midwest, the dog rarely loses sight of his sheep as he's running out to them. I have little experience with running on big fields, and it showed at the Finals.

Jack spotted his sheep, and kicked out wide to go get them. His path took him over a rise and out of sight. I thought I'd spot him as he neared the sheep.

I was wrong.

He went past his sheep, and we lost valuable time. Once he found his sheep, I gave a few too many commands, causing him to circle the sheep. While we got back on track during the drive, we ran out of time in the shedding ring.

While I was disappointed, I had no regrets about making the cross-country trek.

I've had the chance to compete on a challenging field with challenging sheep--and to see some of the best dogs and handlers in the country. And, once again, I've learned new lessons about sheepdog trialing.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Heading West Then

My first trip to the West was a quarter of a century ago.

It was summer, and my boyfriend, now husband, stuffed his Ford Bronco II with a leaky tent, foam mattress, cooler, AAA tour books and maps, and we drove. Our destination: the Badlands, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone.

The wide open spaces and hiking were spectacular.

The weather was not. It rained for days. In Cody, Wyoming, we awoke to an inch of water in our tent. In Yellowstone, we awoke to snow on top of the tent. We became experts at lingering in lodges, restaurants and laundromats.

At the end of the trip we were still talking to each other--and talking about plans to go back.

Two years later, we made the trek west again.

This time, we had a better tent and a Ford Ranger; we also traveled with 10 other people.

The highlight of that trip was spending several days horseback riding and camping along parts of the Oregon Trail near South Pass City, Wyoming.

That vacation was the last of our long car trip vacations. When given the choice between driving and flying, we opted to fly.

This fall, though, I am making a road trip west again. My destination, Alturas, California, is nearly 2,300 miles away.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Where the Road Leads...

Jack at the Land of Lincoln Sheepdog Trial in July.
 Photo by Patti Sumner.

Sometimes you plan your routes, and sometimes you go where the road takes you.

When Jack arrived on our farm, just over two years ago, my plan was to compete in some trials and become a better handler. At 8 years of age, he was an accomplished trial and farm dog; I had been an open handler for less than a year.

We struggled at first and were very inconsistent, but we had just enough magical moments to qualify for the National Sheepdog Finals in Virginia last year.

With Jack turning 10 and the National Sheepdog Finals in California this year, I planned to focus on consistency, to compete at little less, and to enjoy working Jack. I did those things--and along the way, Jack qualified for the finals.

"You should go," my husband said. "It's probably Jack's last year to compete."

It's a long way from Ohio to California.

But that's where the road is taking me.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Sounds of Late Summer

The oak tree shows no ill effects from the constant mowing in its youth.
As always, Niki is the photo-bombing dog.

As I sit on the back porch, writing about the day, I hear a thunk, silence, another thunk.

Acorns are falling from the oak tree,
planted by my mother some 20-plus years ago,
mowed over by tenants,
and then mowed over my me,
until one day,
when I'd neglected spring mowing for a week or two.

While mowing, I spotted a stem and four oak leaves.

I mowed around the little oak tree that day,
and for days and years after.
Twenty years later, that oak tree is almost as tall as the house,
and it provides shade,
and acorns that thunk and thunk as they fall to the ground.

We've had 90 degree days during this first week of September.
Are hot days encouraging the acorns to fall?
Or does that oak tree feel a fierce winter coming?
Maybe the tree just wants to announce its presence,
with a simple thunk, thunk, thunk on a late summer day.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Pink Spots and Red Streaks

The husband was en route to an 8-day vacation in Canada when I got the news: Dewey Kitty was to take antibiotics twice a day for the next 10 days.

I would have to find some way to get 1.5 ml of pink, sticky liquid down his throat.

He was unsuspecting the first time, when I wrapped him in a towel and squirted it down his throat.

The second time he was ready. I've seen the way you wrap Christmas presents and you have no tape, he said, extracting a claws-extended back paw that gave me a few scratches before I got the medicine down.

The third time, I thought about tape, but tried the double towel wrap. I'm smarter than that, he said, extricating a front paw, giving me a left hook and a head shake. Who knew 1.5 ml could fly so far? The towel, counter and walls were dotted in pink.

The solution came when I spotted Dewey Kitty curled up in a box.

I filled the syringe, petted him, listened to him purr. Then, with his feet tucked in the box, I opened his mouth and squirted the antibiotics in. No problem.

That evening, I pointed to his box, and he hopped in. I petted him for a bit, and administered the medication. No problem.

Sometimes it pays to think inside the box.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

7 Years and 2 Nuts

Sometimes that moment of wonder is years in the making.

In the fall of 2011, I planted several buckeye nuts in the front yard. Maybe, just maybe, I'd have my own buckeyes in five years.

In the summer of 2012, I marveled at my baker's dozen of seedlings.

When the seedlings survived another year, I thinned them out and kept two: an heir and a spare.

This summer, I have my first harvest: two nuts.

They'll go in my pocket, I think, and be my lucky buckeyes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

One Brain Cell

The ram lambs often move as a collective clump.

At four months of age, the ram lambs are separated from the flock and enter their state of bachelorhood. They live in a separate pasture, and graze, ruminate and sleep together.

The time spent on sheep care goes up.

Not only do we have to ensure the ram lambs are getting plenty of food and water, we also must deal with their erratic behavior.

For the most part, the flock of ewes and ewe lambs behave in a predictable manner. The lead ewe, often an older, wiser animal, makes the decisions about when the flock goes to pasture, when it worries about people, when it sleeps, and when it runs.

The ram lambs have no leader. Instead, they act as a collective clump that often makes bad decisions.

Sometimes they startle at the sight of a dog and go sprinting across the field. Sometimes they sprint, just because. Sometimes the group splits, and they stand in a state of wonder. How will they ever get back together?

The Border collies and I must practice lots of patience.

Tonight, when moving the ram lambs to another pasture, three lambs decided to dart into the waterway. Were they older ewes, I would have sent the dog to reunite the flock. Doing that with ram lambs may have sent the three on a suicide mission into the fence. So, I asked the dog to lie down and wait as the one-brain-celled group figured out how to reunite with the others.

Eventually they did.

But will they remember this lesson tomorrow?

I'm not counting on it.

The Border collies learn to keep their distance and to move slowly around ram lambs.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

In Search of the Not-So-Wild Onion

Traveling, sheepdog trialing and training are not conducive to gardening.

The garden that I lovingly planted, weeded and tended in May is now lush with weeds.

But I am an optimist.

Surely my veggie plants would survive the chaos.

And, so tonight I went in search of the onions.

If I could find one, I reasoned, I could make out the row and follow it through the weeds.

With a little effort, a few mosquito bites and some thistle pricks, I found and rescued the sweet onions.

They will pair  nicely with the zucchini and cucumbers that seem to thrive on neglect, and go from blossom to ginormous overnight.

One person can only eat so many cucumbers and zucchini, so I've cut a deal with the chickens. I get the tender produce--and anything over 6 inches is theirs for the slurping.

It works for now, but I see them eyeing the tomatoes.

The tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplant are for another night.

Reclaiming the wild garden takes time.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Now, Just Ewe Chicks

Maybe counting 28 lambs was too taxing.

Or maybe he saw snow in the forecast yet again, and thought spring would never come.

Or maybe, at 18 years, he'd lived the lifespan of a llama.

But this weekend, Llambert the Llama checked out, leaving the farm llamaless for the first time in 12 years.

Llambert arrived on our farm shortly after the sheep. At the time, llamas were the choice guard animals for sheep. And, he was our choice at the llama farm because he, a big brown llama, was cheaper than the silver, white and black llamas.

Nobody wants a brown sweater.

The llama owner loved him, though, and spent much of her time cooing at him, blowing him kisses and rubbing her hands over his body.

"So do llamas have a spot where they like to be rubbed?" my husband asked the woman's husband when the woman left the barn.

"Llamas don't like to be touched," he said.

But Llambert liked the sheep and oversaw the births of hundreds of lambs. In the spring, we delighted in watching the lambs climb on him and nestle up with him.

When we had the occasional bottle lamb, he'd be its snuggle partner at night.

He, tolerated the chickens, too, allowing them to climb on his back and perch.

 The cat, too, found there was nothing like nestling in llama fur on cold winter nights.

For the most part, I let him be a llama and revel in his llamaness.

Once a year, though, I had to get out the halter, so the vet and I could tend to his health needs: vaccinations, hoof trimming, deworming and shearing.

"You should have got a donkey," the vet said the first year that he saw the llama.

In those early years, the annual vet visit usually involved some kicking, cursing and flying syringes.

We got better at it, though, and by year 10 seemed to have a system down.

I got better at the llama hair cuts too. During my first attempts, he looked like he'd been attacked by a kindergartner with safety scissors.

Last year, when I finished his haircut, I declared it as "not that bad."

Maybe that's why he left. Shearing season was coming.

Rest in peace big guy.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

When Optimism Feels Like Work...

It was definitely our prettiest snow of spring--and had it happened in winter, it would have been the prettiest winter snow.

For 12 hours, the wind seemed to stop and allow the snow to fall in big, loose flakes. It clung to gates, fences, tree branches.

And, the spring bird song made the event surreal. How can there be so much bird song in the calm after a snowfall?

The best part about it? It was April 2, when the sun is higher in the sky, and the ground is not frozen, and the temperatures would rise above freezing. So, by afternoon, it would be gone.

I try to enjoy it's loveliness, but instead, I find myself scanning blogs from early April in years past. Was the grass green? How green was it? Surely, the daffodils will bloom, the dandelions will come to life, and spring will be here to stay.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Starting Spring with Creative Stall Building

Lambs and ewes hang out under the lean-to after the storm.

Usually I don't worry about sub-freezing weather or a little snow and rain.

But when the winds blow from the east at 30 mph, and right into the sheep's lean-to, and promise to deliver 5 inches of snow, I take action.

Lambs are pretty hardy creatures, but dampness, wind and freezing temperatures will chill them. So, I had to find some way to bring them into the barn and out of the wind and snow.

Our barn was originally designed for horses. When the sheep came along, we built a lean-to on the east end. It provides shade in the summer, and protection from the west wind. It was offering them no protection on Monday night.

So I spent the evening looking at the horse/sheep barn and tryng to figure out where I could fit the sheep. I didn't want to sort and divide the flock and place different groups in different horse stalls. The odds of getting the wrong ewe with the wrong lamb were pretty high.

So, I did some creative stall building. And in 30 minutes I had a labyrinth in the barn that allowed the sheep to get inside and out of the wind.

Of course, it left me with no aisle ways--and I'm getting better at climbing over gates.

But it seemed to work.

New friends were made overnight.

The winds are supposed to die down tonight--so the sheep can return to the lean-to, and I can reclaim the barn.

Sidenote: I bought the smaller sheep pipe panels last year, and have added them to my While-Didn't-I-Do-it-Sooner List. They're easy to move and configure into all kinds of pens and corrals.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lambing Season: Sunshine to Snow in 15 Days

Triplet ram lambs not quite a day old.

Lambing season started with triplets born under a nearly full moon and ended 15 days later with triplets born under a moon sliver.

The weather was typical for March: sunny, windy, muddy, cold, snowy, grey and more grey.

But in the end, we had one of our best lambing seasons yet: 28 lambs from 14 ewes, and very little drama.

Not bad for early March.

I don't usually lamb this early, but I had a sheepdog trial scheduled for the third week of March, and wanted lambing season wrapped up before I hit the road.

The sheepdog trial was postponed.

Lambing season went on.

Now that it is over, I'll be cleaning out the barn and enjoying hours of lamb TV--and hopefully taking lots of photos and videos, because that's one of the best parts of lambing season.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Conversations in the Lamb Pen

We were breezing through lambing season until Ewe #11 gave birth to twins.

The black ewe bellowed in the paddock while her newborn twin lambs shivered in the afternoon breeze. I scooped them up and brought them into the barn and out of the wind.

Unlike the other ewes, she did not follow me and her babies.

She did, though, seem happy to follow a flake of alfalfa hay into the barn--until I shut the door, and she found herself locked in a stall with her two lambs.

Why are you leaving me with them? she screamed.

Sometimes ewes reject their lambs. A ewe with triplets may push one aside. A ewe disturbed during birthing and not given time to bond may reject a lamb. And, as was in the case with this ewe, a first-time mom might just be beyond nervous.

I'm a fan of no-fuss plants and animals. I don't grow roses. My Halfinger horses seem to get fat on air. My Katahdin and Dorper sheep thrive on grass and rarely need assistance with lambing or living.

But I wasn't going to give up on two healthy lambs. I'd first make sure they got antibody-rich colostrum from their mother. To do that, I caught and haltered the ewe, then confirmed that she was making milk. I next directed the lambs to the udder.

She gave me a wild-eyed look.

"You'll warm up to them," I told her.

The few times I've had a ewe reject a lamb, I've had success holding the ewe and allowing the lamb to nurse frequently for the first 24-48 hours. After that, the lamb smells like her mom, and the two bond. It's time consuming, but less so than raising lambs on bottles.

"I'm not sure I'd be wild about taking on twins," I tell the ewe. "But you only have to do this for 90 days, and then you can join the Working Group (the sheep I use for dog training)."

She responds by leaping into me.

When I return to her pen two hours later, I bring a stool. She brings an attitude. After catching and haltering her, I sit on the stool as the lambs nurse.

"You only have to do this for 60 days," I say. "You'll get the best food. You can probably talk some SuperMom into watching them while you nap."

She struggles to escape--and I hold on, and listen to song after song on the radio as the minutes tick by.

During my third visit, it is dark and cold. I bring a stool and my phone. Might as well catch up on the news while I'm holding the ewe. Instead, I get sucked into Facebook and all the photos of lambs nursing from their patient moms.

"Why can't you be like them," I say, showing her the photos.

Sometime after my third visit, another ewe gives birth to twins. After settling them into an adjoining stall, I resume my position on the stool.

"Look at them," I tell the black ewe. "She's standing so quietly while her babies nurse." The ewe still struggles to escape. I am getting better at hanging on.

The ewe is less cantankerous in the morning--but still is not going to stand and allow her babies to nurse.

"Never have I dreamed of spending the pre-dawn hours in a freezing sheep stall," I tell the ewe. Though it's really quite pleasant. The other ewes and horses are munching hay; the cat is perched above me; and snow is falling outside. When I scratch the lambs rumps, they wag their tails and nurse more enthusiastically.

"You have really bad breath," I say while holding her during the dawn feeding. She happily chews her cud.

When I return in the afternoon, she looks at me and stands still, allowing her babies to nurse. Apparently she's accepted them--or decided she'd rather nurse them than chat with me. And I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Forget the Groundhog, Listen to the Trees

February's the month when many Northerners, tired of cold and gray days, flee to the South, for a weekend, a week, a month or longer.

Those left behind gripe about the seemingly endless cycle of freeze, thaw, mud and more mud. Or, they look for any signs of spring: a few loose hairs on the horses, a yellow dandelion, bird song, a groundhog who doesn't see his shadow.

I slog out the late winter months in Ohio, griping and searching--and also heading to the woods to visit the maple trees.

A local park taps about 40 maple trees each year and relies on volunteers to collect the sap. The sap runs for about six weeks in late winter when nights are cold and days warm above freezing.

This year's cold weather means maple syrup season is getting off to a slow start.

During my first two visits, temperatures remained near freezing and there was no sap to collect.

The woods are quiet at this time of year. Few people visit the park in winter; the leaves have lost their crunch, and gray days do not entice the birds to sing.

Today, though, I heard another sound that lifted my spirits.

Drip, long pause, drip, pause, drip. The sap was flowing.

The ice on the river was melting.

The wild flowers are awakening.

In the coming weeks, I expect the dripping of the maple sap will increase, until one day, when the sap turns a yellow or cloudy hue.

Those colors indicate the trees are ready to bud--and spring is finally here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Discovery at the IGA

As a child, my grandparents took me to Young's Dairy in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for pony rides, ice cream and milk.

For me, riding a pony and looking at the fawn-colored cows with the huge soft eyes and brown muzzles were the highlights of the visit. For them, it was probably the milk, non-homogenized and with cream on top.

It's hard to find milk like that today.

Most milk comes from Holstein cows and is homogenized, with the cream removed.

But, on a trip to the local IGA, I found something that stopped me in my tracks: organic milk from grass-fed Jersey cows, with the cream on top.

So, I'm now making a weekly stop to the IGA--and I don't need the promise of a pony ride to entice me.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Set Free: The Broken Legged Hen Saga Continues

We had no release party.

But the sun was shining, the snow was melting, and temperatures were climbing into the 30's. Even our fair-weather Wyandottes chickens ventured outside the hen house.

Now in approximately week six of her confinement, the Broken Legged Hen was tired of her 8 by 8-foot stall, and I was tired of feeding her separately from the others.

"Be free," I said, opening her stall door.

Then I left the barn and took the Border collies on their morning dog walk. When I returned, the stall was empty.

From a distance, the Broken Legged Hen looks no different than the other Buckeye hens. Up close, her now-healed broken leg is thicker--and she walks with a limp.

She settled back into her routine of hanging out with the two Haflinger horses. Either she'd forgotten that a horse hoof broke her leg, or she didn't care.

At night, rather than joining the other hens in the hen house, she settled into the corner of the horse stall.

When the horses were fed, she was there to snatch up loose bits of grain.

I've given up arguing with her.

The horse stall is where she wants to be.

And I will let it be.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Preparing for Act 2

The snow gave way to mud today, and I prepared for Winter: Act 2.

The only certainty about Ohio winters is that just when you think you can't stand another day of mud, or snow, or freezing temperatures, it gives you something else.

So, after a few weeks of below freezing temperatures, it gave overcast skies, 53-degree temperatures, and mud.

I spent the day cleaning up from The Freeze and preparing for The Snowstorm.

That involved moving more hay from the storage barn to the sheep and horse barn.

And removing 2+ weeks of manure from the horse stalls and loafing shed.

And musing at the chickens. The Buckeyes ventured out and about during The Freeze. The Silver Laced Wyandottes opted to hang out in the hen house until the snow melted.

I moved more firewood indoors and cleaned out the wood-burning stove. And, of course, I worked the Border  collies, who think The Freeze or The Snowstorm is a silly excuse to spend time indoors.