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Farm Fresh Blog
Thursday, 23 June 2016
And so it was that we safely concluded a 27 hour journey home from the Sheep Is Life 2016 event with wonderful tales to tell and more additions to our Navajo Churro flock. It was a grand adventure, but we definitely bit off more than we could chew. This trip evolved much like a Lord Of The Rings movie and it didn't take me long to figure out that I'm a hobbit, folks. I'm a hobbit.
We'd all like to be elves, beautiful, elegant, powerful, and talented, but I'm just a simple hobbit. I like my life in the Shire and I'm not a big traveler. Taking a road trip from Texas to Tsaile, Arizona for a Navajo Churro Sheep convention was a major undertaking but with people you can trust at home tending the ranch, we bit the bullet and decided to make the journey to learn more about these sheep, take a cinch weaving class, and pick up some more genetics for our flock.
Then the adventure began to take shape. A word of advice - New Mexico and Arizona are like Texas. Everything is much farther away than it appears on the map. When you tack on the extra drive time in mountains, the trip takes even longer. Not fully appreciating this little factoid, we opted to stay with relatives in Farmington, New Mexico to get a little family time in while we were there. Unfortunately this proved to be next to impossible. The drive between their house and the show site each day took hours and this ate up any free time we had, thus we had very little time to visit and were exhausted when we did. We were staying across the mountains from the show site so each day it was a 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hour journey one way through the mountains, or a 3 hour trip around the mountains. The trip was beautiful but driving a standard transmission large truck through switchbacks, we felt like hobbits going through Mordor.
We did go through some really pretty scenery.
And the people. The Navajo Churro people. The Sheep Is Life people. Everyone welcomed us into the world of Churro sheep. Even Other Half had a great time. He attended classes on shearing and butchering sheep while I was taking my cinch weaving class. Since he's never met a stranger, Other Half made a lot of new friends.
We entered the laid back world of showing sheep in a trial by fire. We were just handed a leadrope and told,
"Take this one into the ring. You're showing it."
Yep. With no experience whatsoever, we wrestled and dragged reluctant sheep into the ring. It's easy to lose your fear of being embarrassed by a misbehaving animal when you're watching other handlers carry, drag, and be dragged by half-wild sheep. We didn't stand out a bit. (Except for me when I put the sheep halter on upside down. Hey! Sue me. I use collars because I hate those halters. But after wrestling and showing sheep all afternoon, I think I've got it down. LOL)
Even Other Half got sucked into showing sheep... and . . .
drum roll please . . .
He liked it. And he and his ewe lamb won their class.
Lest he get a big head, I'd like to point out that my ram lamb and I won our class too. Let me be quick to also point out that these wins in no way reflect upon our showmanship skills. The sheep we were showing were really well bred animals and all the credit goes to the breeder. I will definitely buy sheep from this breeder in the future.
Overall it was a great trip. We saw a lot, we learned a lot, and like happy hobbits, we survived our journey through the mountains and desert to return home. What was a 17 hour trip there, became a 27 hour trip back home. We brought seven sheep home with us and so we took more and longer stops. Because of the sheep we drove through the desert at night. I hate to offend anyone, but let me go on the record and proclaim:
"I do not like green eggs and ham. I do NOT like driving in the desert with a lamb, Sam I am."
At the end of the day, the trip was definitely worth it. It takes a lot to get the Hobbit out of the Shire, but sheep did it and probably will again.
Friday, 10 June 2016
Yesterday was Jerri Springer's first day out. Since this was an unplanned pregnancy, poor Jerri has no other lambs to play with and thus she trails beside her mother like a sidecar on a motorbike. On one hand I feel sorry for her because she has no playmates, on the other hand, she enjoys the protection of her mother's status as the baddest bad girl ewe in the flock. No one messes with Jerri Springer or her mom will send them to the moon!
And so it was that Jerri Springer met the Livestock Guardian Dogs. Briar, a veteran of lamb introductions had the good sense to take her olfactory inventory at a distance, but Judge and Jury waded right in to see the new baby.
I waited for the explosion. Mariannie was a bit stressed, but as long as Jerri was calm, she was okay. All was well as a slightly confused Jerri basked in the glow of all the attention. Everything was going well until Dillon, the Labrador Retriever, rushed up from the pond, bounced into their bubble, and gushed,
"OOOOH! A baby! I wanna see the new baby!"
It was like lighting a string of firecrackers. Mariannie rammed him three times before he could get away far enough to run. It was only his Matrix-like evasive maneuvers that kept him from bouncing off her horns like red rubber dodge ball against a brick wall. On the third ram attempt, he growled at the ewe as he ran backwards. Dillon is good natured, but he figured enough was enough.
And that's when the giant dog rushed in and slammed Dillon into the side of the horse trailer.
And then apologized for it.
Dillon ranks well over the Anatolians in the canine food chain around here, but when the Labrador growled at the ewe, something rose up inside Jury and he took action. His brother rushed behind him as backup, but never made physical contact with Dillon. Under the onslaught of an enraged ewe and two Livestock Guardian Dogs, Dillon decided that retreat was the best option.
Jury reminded me of a rookie cop dealing with his first family disturbance.
"Please. Seriously. Don't do that. I'm sorry about this, but you can't do that. It's against the law. Excuse me. Stop that."
When he becomes a seasoned veteran, with no apologies whatsoever, he'll slam that Labrador in handcuffs so fast his head'll spin.
Jerri's mother has refused to take her lamb into the pasture with everyone else, preferring instead to lie around the relative security of the barnyard. We took a short road trip to buy feed in the afternoon and chose to leave the sheep and goats out while we were gone. Because the pups are not allowed to run loose while we aren't home, I locked them in the runs behind the stalls, then I didn't give it another thought.
Until I came home.
Lying in the driveway in front of the barn, with sheep grazing around him, was a large white spotted dog. Apparently Jury had dug out of his prison while we were gone. He was clean and dry so it doesn't appear that he slipped underneath the field fencing and went 'walk about' in the forest as is his habit. From the looks of him, he just dug out, and then hung out with the sheep. (Or he was out so long that he had time to run the forest like a drunken frat boy, and then come home and sleep it off. That's a possibility too.) Regardless, when we drove up, he was doing the classic Livestock Guardian Dog thing, lounging under a tree while sheep grazed around him. Nevertheless, my heart was still thumping wildly as I took off in search of Jerri Springer because I didn't trust a year old giant puppy with a tiny baby.
She was fine. Her gray grizzly bear mother was dozing beside her. My worries melted away as the groggy baby stood up on wobbly legs. The dog pushed his way along with me. Clearly he'd not been a problem in my absence because both mother and baby were fine with the dog bouncing around. So I could breathe again. For the moment, all was well on the farm.
Our accidental oops lamb seems to be doing fine and The Boyz are growing up and becoming more responsible. Genes can only carry you so far. You still have to train Livestock Guardian Dogs. You have to be responsible for their behavior when they can't. Save them from themselves until they're mature enough to make good decisions. We aren't there yet. The pups just turned a year old. They aren't mature enough to be loose all the time like the older dog, Briar. Since they dig, no field fence can truly contain them. It's impossible to run hotwire around the base of every fence around here. The best I can do is monitor them closely and when I can't monitor them, lock them in a run with re-enforced flooring at the bottom. I lay cattle panels on the ground along the dig areas. This helps eliminate the digging in that one place, but from time to time, (yesterday) they will spring a new hole. We live with it and make adjustments accordingly. And sometimes, like yesterday, they surprise me. After all that effort to get out, they still end up just sleeping beside the sheep. It makes my heart smile.
Wednesday, 08 June 2016
There was clearly a reason why she felt she couldn't come into the barn with everyone else. I walked over there, half-expecting her to be snake-bit, but what I found surprised me even more. Mariannie was in labor.
I don't have a ram. My mind quickly reeled back to when I purchased this batch of sheep - November 20. Nope. She didn't come already bred. That's a shame, because if that had been the case at least the lamb might be a Navajo Churro or half Jacob. But since the gestation period on a sheep is 5 months, there could be only two suspects:
Cash - young Dorper ram who sired this year's crop of Dorper lambs. I had taken great care not to expose Cash to the Navajo Churro ewes because who wants a cross between a sheep known for its high quality wool and a sheep known to shed its wool?
Although I had no recollection of Cash getting loose with the churro, it's possible. Anything is possible if you have a ram.
The other possibility was more of a Jurassic Park adventure - Hermionie, the hermaphrodite ewe.
Yes, she/he has boy parts and girl parts. Hermionie has a vagina, but she/he also has an easily visible scrotum that appears to be empty. I've been told by vets that Hermionie may have testicles in her abdomen. Alrightie then. Does she have a penis? As I stared at Mariannie lying in the sand behind the hay barn, I couldn't remember if we checked to see if Hermionie had a working penis because she/he clearly urinated from the other end.
Yes Folks, this is the kind of crap that you deal with if you have a farm. Life is beautiful. Life is cruel. Life is exciting. Life is a lot of things, but life is never boring.
So there you have it. Mariannie was clearly having someone's baby. We ushered everyone inside and moved the Livestock Guardian Dogs outside. Since things like this cannot be kept to yourself, I grouptexted my local churro sheep tribe. (If you didn't get a text don't feel offended, I hate group texts myself and try to limit their use. I only texted the folk who would have beaten me over the head with the phone had they not been real-time involved in this adventure.) Anyway, a lambing stall was prepared, a ewe in labor was in it, and now all we had to do was wait. And wonder. Who was the daddy?
It was decided that since the black-headed Dorper trait is so dominant that if Cash was the father, some combination of that would probably show up. When considering the possibility of Hermionie as the sire there was much talk of the Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum quote,
"Life will find a way."
Up until I discovered that Mariannie was pregnant it was my understanding that Hermionie 'identified' as a ewe and used the Ewe Bathroom. If Hermionie was the 'baby daddy' that would seriously complicate things because although I have nothing against them, and in fact, I really like Hermionie and want to keep her/him, I'm not in the business of breeding hermaphrodite sheep. If Hermionie was the father then I could no longer keep him/her with ewes, nor could I sell him to someone with ewes. Or even with a ram, because for sure she/he has working girl parts. I'm not sure if she/he can get pregnant but it isn't a chance I want to take.
And as my 'tribe' pointed out on group text, what if Mariannie wasn't the only ewe pregnant? Gotta love friends who will point out the worst possible scenario in the middle of a crisis. I decided to cross that bridge when I came to it. You can only handle one situation at a time, and the crisis at the moment was prayers for a healthy birth. I didn't care who the daddy was as long as Mariannie and the baby/babies were okay.
Three and a half hours after I first noticed her in labor, Mariannie delivered a vigorous baby girl. As a nod to our "who's ya daddy" mystery, I named her Jerri Springer.
(For those of you who live a full life and have no clue who he is, Jerry Springer is a television host of a somewhat sleazy talk show that often deals with "who's the daddy' paternity tests.)
Jerri is solid black. This gave no clues as to who was her daddy. There was only one thing left to do. Just minutes before midnight, Other Half and I stood in the barn and argued about it. I won, so we awoke and sexually assaulted poor Hermionie to determine if she/he actually had an external penis. I can now report -
drum roll please . . .
. . . that she/he does not.
Therefor it is physically impossible for Hermionie to be Mariannie's baby daddy!
Which leaves the equally undesirable option that little Jerri is a Navajo Churro/Dorper cross. Oh joy joy.
Oh well. Jerri is healthy, Hermionie is healthy, and Cash now lives on another farm miles down the road so there will be no encore performance. Cash had a soft plushy coat so there is no telling how Jerri will end up. I need another pet sheep like I need another hole in the head, but I also believe that God doesn't make mistakes. Somehow Jerri ended up with us and so be it. She's a cute little thing.
Hopefully Hermionie will soon forgive us for the midnight home invasion and assault.
Tuesday, 07 June 2016
I looked into his eyes and stepped back into another world, into another person long since forgotten. A lifetime ago, before I went into police work, and then retired to ranching full time, I was a sixth grade Science teacher. For ten years I taught children about life before finally deciding the public education system wasn't for me. I loved the kids, and I loved teaching.
What I didn't like was the direction public education was headed. I still firmly believe that standardized testing and teaching a curriculum aimed at merely passing tests is a mistake. This does not lead to a well-rounded education. The education system is losing too many talented teachers and students each year as it doggedly marches down this path. In the mean time, those left are doing the best they can while their hands are tied by an out of touch system. Like tired swimmers they dog paddle along, trying to keep afloat while more and more responsibility is heaped upon the tiny raft they cling to. And bless their hearts, they keep on swimming.
It's been such a long time since I've been in the classroom that I'd almost forgotten the best part of teaching, the simple joy of watching a spark of interest ignite in a child's eyes. Away from the standardized tests, and the lesson plans, and the endless series of time segments marked by the ringing of bells and the scuffling of feet and backpacks, the essence of teaching is about lighting fires. In this age of information, where the world is only a tap on the smart phone away, true learning is still no different now than it was forty years ago. An education is not simply a regurgitation of facts, it's an accumulation of life experiences, an awakening of interests, a love of learning, and the knowledge of where to go to find out more. Knowledge is power. The art of bubbling in answers on a scan sheet is not knowledge. It's a skill.
It rained so much this week that I didn't bring the sheep to Pioneer Days. When my husband impulsively volunteered me to demonstrate spinning raw wool into yarn, I wasn't too keen on it. The idea of participating in Pioneer Days may have been fun if I'd had period clothing and the time to prepare, but this was pretty short notice. All I had was muddy sheep, some leather snake boots, an oversized cowboy shirt, and a black belt I made myself from Navajo Churro wool. I also had raw wool in various states of preparation, and my trusty Kromski Sonata spinning wheel. And a distant memory.
I remembered what it was like to awaken a spark of interest. I remembered what it was like to blow on that spark to make a flame. And I remembered when to let go, to let that flame take off on its own. And it did.
Children still tickle me. None of them woke up that morning with any interest whatsoever in wool or spinning yarn, and frankly my goal wasn't to teach them to be expert spinners, it was to awaken an interest in a dying craft. It was to give them something they can't find on The History Channel, a real tactile experience. Touch it. Smell it. Feel the life of the sheep in your hands.
I could have provided a history lesson on spinning. I could have tossed out the neat little factoids that interest me so much. For instance, did you know where the term "spinster" came from?
In Colonial America spinning was serious stuff. Wool was big business in England and the Colonies. Massachusetts even passed a law requiring each family to spin a pound of yarn a week for thirty weeks. They were charged money for every pound the family fell short. Because of this many families brought in unmarried relatives or friends to help spin wool. This is where we got the term "spinster.
But I digress. Kids don't care about taxes. Kids want to touch things. They want to hear that spinning yarn is a skill they can master, like dribbling a basketball. They want to pick things up, and smell them, and feel the grease on their fingers. They want to sit on the stool, touch the magic fiber, peddle the treadles, and watch the wheel turn that fluff in their fingers to yarn. And they want to take that yarn home. The yarn will stay in their pocket for the day. It'll be dangled in the faces of family members, and in time, it'll be thrown away, or stuffed in the back of a drawer. Maybe, if it's lucky, it'll be tucked in a cherished place with other childhood treasures. The important thing isn't the yarn, it's the spark of interest in the child.
And they were interested. In no time they gathered to spin. The kids took to spinning faster than the adults. There was a line of children waiting for their turn at the wheel. My little Sonata wheel was very forgiving of their efforts. The wool liked the children and in most cases twisted itself into yarn with little or no trouble. As soon as the child on the stool had mastered spinning enough to produce a decent amount of yarn, they yielded their seat and taught the child behind them. Not only was this non-threatening to the next child in line, but it was empowering to the child teaching the new skill. They now shared some ownership. And what we own becomes more important to us. Nothing was stolen. Nothing was broken. The kids were very careful with the wheel. They left with a piece of yarn, some memories, and a fragment of a skill almost lost.
And I was richer for the experience too. Some reenactors from another booth came over and asked if I'd do a spinning demonstration at their event next Fall. I agreed, but with some reservations. My wheel is not a period wheel, and I don't have a period outfit, but we can probably work around that. We'll see. On a farm it's easy to shut yourself off, to fall into the routine of caring for animals and thanking God for the sunrise each morning. It's easy to enjoy our blessings and forget that we need to give back to others. This experience reminded me to share those blessings, and to reach out and touch the next generation. The things and skills that are important to us, these things we don't want lost, can only be saved if we share them with others, if we awaken a passion in someone else.
Wednesday, 01 June 2016
Charles Darwin didn't have to travel to the Galapagos Islands to find enough data for "On the Origin of Species," he could have just spent more time on a ranch to see natural selection at work. The strongest, smartest, fastest, and luckiest survive to reproduce their genes, and make no mistake, luck tends to favor the smartest.
Mother Nature is cruel, and the innocent pay for the mistakes of their parents. As humans, we are forever interfering with nature, but doing so brings its own responsibility. If you're gonna play with Mother Nature, be ready to accept the consequences to upsetting natural selection. If you feel so sorry for the barn swallows who built a nest in the tongue of the horse trailer where the cats and dogs could get the babies that you build a safety pen of panels around that area, and refuse to use the horse trailer until the babies fly away, and pen up most of the cats, then be prepared for the fact that you will either continue to breed stupid birds or you'll get your heart broken when a cat gets the birds anyway.
And while playing God and rescuing wild animals from their poor choices or the poor choices of their parents doesn't necessarily cost anything more than heartache, the choice of whether or not to interfere with natural selection when it comes to livestock hits you straight in the wallet.
It really depends upon the livestock you raise. If you choose to raise dairy goats, kiss any kind of ranching in harmony with natural selection goodbye. These animals are so high maintenance that you must intervene. As farmers we have selected for animals with high milk production, not their ability to survive on their own. Accept it, or don't raise dairy goats.
With sheep and cattle it's a different story. We try to choose breeds with excellent mothering skills, and select individuals within those breeds who are good mothers. The terrain, climate and predator load in some places can enable the mothers, hiding their poor choices. Other places are less forgiving. On our ranch there are very few chances. If the humans are not there to catch the mistake quickly, natural selection swings a hard hammer fast. Calves who stray too far away from the herd can find themselves on the menu at someone else's party. And as poor IB1 apparently found out the hard way, if you choose to give birth right beside the creek, your baby can wobble over the edge and be swept away.
The idea of an innocent calf drowning is heartbreaking. The monetary loss is significant too. And this is where as ranchers, we dance that delicate waltz with Natural Selection. We can choose to harden our hearts, throw the cattle out there, and let the mothers and calves suffer their own poor choices. This insures the strongest, the brightest, and the luckiest survive to reproduce. This can also be very expensive.
On Memorial Day $700-$1000 floated downstream. It appears that IB1 had a successful birthing approximately 3-6 feet from the edge of the creek. We found the afterbirth there too. There was no evidence of predators, just the easy roll of the water and the mournful bellows of a cow calling her calf.
On the other hand we could choose to micromanage the livestock and lock them up until the calves are big enough to handle the predators. This is also very expensive because you have to haul a lot of feed to them and they still will not have the bloom that pastured cattle have.
And here is where we dance. Because we bred some of the cows to a large-boned Charolais bull and there was the possibility that we would have to assist birthing, we kept those girls penned until their babies were successfully on the ground and very mobile. We hauled gobs of feed to them, and yet still watched the mothers drop weight. The calves got fatter and fatter and the mothers got skinnier and skinnier. It just didn't make sense to continue to haul money in feed when the cattle are surrounded by pastures with tall grass, so as soon those Charolais-bred cows had calves, we turned the entire herd loose. On knee-deep grass the calves got fatter and their mothers started gaining weight again, but every day we drove out there and counted calves. And every day we checked expectant mothers. Because one of those cows was a first timer, this past week we drove out twice a day to check IB1.
There are limits to what we can do though. IB1 had at least 350 acres to have her baby. Most of this was a safe variety of heavily wooded, partially wooded, and open pasture. Instead, she chose to give birth in a heavily wooded area 3-6 feet from the edge of a 15 foot drop-off into rolling water. Seriously?!! What the heck??!!!
That's called Natural Selection.
I hate it. More than the loss of the money, I hate the thought of that innocent baby drowning. I hate listening to IB1 call for her lost calf.
And so we go back to the Natural Selection Waltz. How much do we intervene in their lives? Some decisions are obviously our responsibility. If we choose to breed to a big bull, then it makes sense that we have to help with calving. But after that danger has passed, how much micromanaging do we do? We are running a cow/calf operation in an area that has a very forgiving climate, but unforgiving predators and an unforgiving creek. If the cattle are loose on the ranch, it is physically impossible to micromanage their lives. They have everything they need to survive and thrive here. But they, and we, have to live with their poor choices regarding the predators and the creek.
IB1 will breed back in a month or so. If she loses her calf next year then she'll be sold with that calf crop because she needs to be on a ranch that isn't as wild as ours. Maybe she has learned something. I don't know how much cows think about these things. IB1 had an excellent mother herself, so hopefully it was just a novice mistake on her part. From the sound of her calls she clearly didn't just abandon her calf. I feel bad for IB1, but I feel worse for the calf who was an innocent victim of the Natural Selection Waltz.