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Saturday, January 28 2017

Here are a few tools you should own if you live on a ranch:

1) Some kind of All Terrain Vehicle or a horse
2) A truck suitable for hauling feed
3) A stockdog

Let's expand upon Tool #3. A good stockdog is like a Leatherman Tool, a Swiss Army Knife, and a Trunk Monkey. (google it) I carry one almost everywhere I go. Seriously. My Border Collie is almost small enough to fit in my purse. Okay, maybe my backpack.

These are the chores in a typical day for my stock dogs:

Push sheep out of pen in morning while preventing goats from leaving.
Push goats off door as they crowd to mug the grain bucket.
Enter Buck pen as escort. Do not let bucks touch Mommy with their stinky faces.
Find Possum, the deaf Aussie.
Feed chickens. Keep Possum from entering chicken yard.
Find Possum again.
Move goats out of their pen after they finish breakfast.
Find Possum again.
Load up in truck to go to town. Move sheep away from front gate so truck can exit.
Move cattle away from next gate so truck can exit.
Say ugly things to anyone who comes near truck in parking lot.
Smile lovingly at the cashier in the Dairy Queen drive-thru.
Move cattle away from gate so truck can enter.
Move sheep away from gate so truck can enter.
Herd Darwin the Chicken back into the chicken yard with the other birds.
Take Possum on a walk. Find Possum multiple times.
Return Darwin to the chicken pen again before Possum finds her out.
Supervise Norman the Bottle-baby Calf on his walk.
Clean Norman's butt.
Make sheep that are afraid of Norman walk past him to enter their pen at night.
Point out to Mom that we missed some sheep. Pick up stragglers and push them into pens.
Take Possum for a walk. Find Possum multiple times.
Help return Darwin to her pen again.
Watch as Livestock Guardian Dogs receive an egg in payment for not killing Darwin. Point out the gross inequality in this system to Management. Receive a token egg. Leave it to go find Possum again.  Return to find that Livestock Guardian Dog has eaten the egg.

Some version of this is repeated each day. If the sheep leave the pasture for grazing then stockdog duties also include 'tending' sheep to make sure everyone stays within the boundaries and returns together as a group.  Mesa makes it her duty to find Possum for me and Lily has assigned herself the role of Kitchen Alert Dog, loudly announcing when the coffee pot and microwave alerts sound. If she had thumbs, I think she'd bring my Yeti full of coffee to me in the barnyard. Such is the nature of a good stockdog.

If you are trying to run a ranch without one, you're missing out, and working way too hard.

Don't short yourself and the dog by running out and getting just any dog. You need a dog that has been BRED to work stock. That is not your Labrador Retriever. He may be fine with your kids. He may be a terribly sweet, kind and loving pet. But he's not a bred to be stockdog. Don't set him up for failure and get pissed when he eats your chickens.

That said, do not run out and buy a wonderfully bred Border Collie (with papers and grandparents from SCOTLAND!) and then toss this pup out in the barnyard and expect him to just figure it out.

"But you said they learn stuff on their own!"

I also said I carry my dog everywhere with me.

A good stockdog knows the routine. She knows what's normal and what's not normal. A good stockdog has the desire to insert herself into the farm routine to make it flow. (Because all stockdogs are really into world domination.) A lot of professional trainers do shut their students away so the dogs can't learn bad habits. Those people know what they're doing and are trying to create the perfect learning environment for their students.

I don't do that because it doesn't work as well for me. (Mostly because I don't know what I'm doing.)

I start out with the best of intentions but I'm simply too far away from a professional herding dog trainer for regular lessons and I'm not sending my dogs away to boarding school. So I'm left with the Learning By Immersion method. We have a job to do. The dog and I. Together. I stack the deck in my favor by buying pups that are bred with the desire to both manipulate livestock (world domination) and be biddable (I get to be the bald-headed guy with the cat and the dog is happy being my minion.)

 If you have no background in dog training whatsoever and want a stockdog, invest in some lessons to at least get you and the dog on the same page. I get away with it because I've trained dogs my entire adult life so although I could benefit tremendously from professional herding lessons, my dogs still end up being pretty handy.  (Just not as good as they would have been had everyone gone to school.) Our lifestyle is such that the dogs are part of the family, not a pets, but as valuable, contributing employees on the ranch. Okay, Possum and Dillon are just plain pets, but the others punch a time clock, fill out a work card, get workman's comp, and retirement benefits.

And it starts with living with them, working with them, and letting them help. A good stockdog is more than just a collection of the right genes, it's a collection of the right experiences. Your job is to make sure your pup gets that experience so she can make it her job to make your life easier. And I'm all about that.

Mesa then.

Mesa now.

Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 11:43 am   |  Permalink   |  5 Comments  |  Email
Friday, January 27 2017

I got a note today from Tina in New Mexico. She was checking since she hasn't seen a blog post in a while. That's so incredibly sweet. And humbling. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to check in and say "Whuzzup?!"

Things have been pretty busy here the last few months. I've been trying to finish a Farm Fresh Forensics book so I can start sending query letters out to agents. Before the holidays I was approached by a television production company that was interested in doing a Farm Fresh Forensics television show. While it was an intriguing proposition, I'm not sure it'll ever pan out because they wanted to do a reality show and didn't realize I had already retired. They'd have to do the show with actors and that costs more money. Regardless of whether or not anything like that ever comes to fruition, it was still flattering that we attracted the attention of Hollywood (or in this case, Burbank.)

But life here is less about Hollywood and more about firewood. It's winter now and never do you more appreciate living in a barn than when you have to feed and it's 24 degrees outside. Deer Season is finally over and things can return to some semblance of 'normal' again. We don't really hunt but there are hunters on the properties around us. One set of hunters has a camp very near our main sheep pasture. The Anatolians are quite interested in the hunters who have petted and fed them. The camp is definitely more entertaining than a sheep pasture and thus Judge regularly sneaked over to visit his new friends. Jury was caught red-headed trying to pull a butchered hog out of a tree at 3 AM one morning. In his defense, the carcass was less than 100 yards upwind of the pasture. Apparently that was more temptation than his juvenile brain could handle. So to keep good relations with the neighbors, I opted to keep the sheep at the house and put the boys on lockdown when hunters were here.

Keeping track of MoonPossum is a full time job.

She has grown quite a bit and is as big as Mesa now.

While Mesa is built like Demi Moore in the GI Jane movie, MoonPossum is a 'full-figured' girl who is more like the Meghan Trainor song, "All About That Bass." (If you haven't heard this song, google it. Guaranteed for a smile.)

 Possum is deaf, but her vision appears to be better now. She isn't squinting as much and seems to navigate quite well except for dark shadows in bright sunlight. Possum lives in a silent world colored with smells. Her nose is exceptional and she follows it everywhere.

Because our barnyard is large and oddly shaped, it's easy to lose Possum around buildings and trees. We put a bell on her collar so we can keep tabs on her by the jingling but it's easy to get preoccupied with chores and find that you've misplaced Possum. This has resulted in racing around the barnyard in a panic calling, "Where's Possum?"

Since MoonPossum is deaf, one would think this activity would be fruitless, but far from it. Mesa is Border Collie. Border Collies excel in teaching themselves new things. Mesa has learned that when I lose Possum she is to locate the deaf dog, and do a drive-by on the little stinker who then sees her black and white friend and follows her back to me.

This works quite well. Mesa retrieves Possum no less than fifty times a day. Often it is no more than a casual poke to get her attention and let her know that everyone else has changed direction and is ready to leave.

The newest act in our three-ring circus is the addition of Norman, the bottle-baby calf.

Norman is a Shorthorn. He may have been a twin. Other Half got him from a friend who wasn't in the position to be able to raise him. We've had Norman for two weeks. He's already bonded to Other Half.

I have no clue what we're going to do with him. My suggestion to put him in the freezer was met with stony silence from Other Half so I'm guessing that's out. Most likely he will end up as another pet. If we ever get a milk cow then Norman can be a yard companion for it. After he is eating solid food well we can try to introduce him into our herd so he can ultimately go out onto the ranch. In the mean time he is penned beside the sheep and goats who are terrified of him. The dogs enjoy time with the calf because they normally never get to satisfy their curiosity with calves. Norman finds them to be a minor annoyance. As far as he's concerned dogs are only good for butt-cleaning and racing in the yard.

"And it's MESA by a length!"

Norman gets turn-out time in the barnyard where he can zoom and play. The dogs run beside him and Possum gets to pretend she is a cowdog.

Mesa keeps track of Norman and herds him back when he strays too far.

So in a nutshell, we're doing fine. It's still a circus here, and we've added a few more acts.  The book is almost finished and I'm already planning the next one.



Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 03:43 pm   |  Permalink   |  7 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, January 03 2017

You know you're a punk when you can't catch a half-blind deaf dog. In my defense, she's really fast.

Because severe storms with possible golf ball size hail had been forecasted I busied myself with getting my trucks under cover before I went to bed. I tucked in sheep and Livestock Guardian Dogs, set up my weather radio in the window, and crawled into bed. Other Half had been planning on leaving his truck outside in the elements because he's one of those "gotta touch the wet paint" people. Then he listened to the weather report and saw the radar. Hmmmmm. . .

Still stinging from the broken pipes fiasco, I think he knew he'd never live it down if he left his truck out and ended up with a broken windshield, so at 1 AM he moved the tractor out of the haybarn and drove the dually in.  (For you city folk, that's just a farm truck with four tires in the rear. Very common in rural areas where people haul heavy loads.) The problem was that the roll-down door wouldn't close because the truck was longer than the tractor. No worries. He just tied the door to the trailer hitch. Problem solved.

The storm was a non-event for our little area but I'm not complaining. Any time we dodge hail it's cause for celebration. So the next morning I made my coffee, let the dogs out, and greeted the day. MoonPossum, the deaf, visually impaired, Australian Shepherd puppy, wears a bell on her collar so we can keep track of her as she toots around the barnyard. On most mornings, the tinkling of her bell is a welcome addition to the normal din of sheep bleating, goats screaming, chickens cackling, cows mooing, horses neighing, and dogs barking. On this morning it was absent.

Always afraid that Possum will find a hole in the fence and slip out with large livestock or the everpresent BoogeyBeast, I dropped what I was doing and marched out in search of Tinkerbell. There was a muffled jingling inside the haybarn. Damn! With the dually's ass sticking out of the barn, the barn gate couldn't close and thus MoonPossum had gained access to the Forbidden Palace.

The Hay Barn houses the tractor, the hay (duh!), pallets of cow feed, the bobcat (tiny bulldozer-like Tonka toy for men), tools, more tools, and Nikita the Barn Cat - Queen of the Night. Nikita is a hired assassin.  Like most contract killers, contact with her employers is minimal. We place catfood (payment offerings) in her bowl (altar) and in turn, she leaves the bodies of her victims targets lying either by the altar bowl or on the hay.

Rats equal damaged bags of cow feed. Rats attract copperheads. Close contact with live rats gives me gray hairs. Thus Nikita the contract killer is exhalted to supreme status on the farm and given whatever she wants. Therefore copious amounts of cat food are placed on the altar.

The altar (cat food bowl) is set on the pavement near the tractor where Nikita sits on her throne (tractor seat). From this position the Queen of the Night lies in wait for any and all rodents attracted to her altar. It is not at all unusual to find one or two dead rodents (sacrifices) each morning. Her top number was three large rats and a mouse in one night.

And so it was that I heard Tinkerbell shuffling around inside the Hay Barn. As I untied the string on the door the sound of the altar (cat food bowl) scraping across the floor announced that MoonPossum had found the cat food. After I freed the door, it rolled it up and sunlight flooded the barn to reveal a smiling MoonPossum with a rather large dead rat in her mouth. The rat's tail bounced in rhythm to the tinkling of Possum's bell as she bounced across the pavement.


The curious thing about a deaf and blind dog is that they cannot hear you scream at them, and so Possum settled down at the altar and commenced to gagging down that rat, tail first.  The rear-end of the dually was sticking out of the barn door like Winnie-the-Pooh stuck in a honey jar. I tried to squeeze through on the right side but it wasn't happening. Too much sourdough bread. Too much winter clothing. So I sucked in my breath and squeezed through on the left side. The front of the truck was pulled up so close to some tools that I couldn't pass without climbing over. Possum saw me coming and momentarily stopped choking down her rat to run under the the truck and out the door.

I squeezed my fat ass back past the truck bumper and out into the barnyard where Possum lay in the sand poking her rat.

At this point I paused and whipped out my phone to preserve this moment so I could roll it out the next time she was licking Other Half's face as they played in his recliner. I am wicked that way.

With photographic proof in hand, I then snatched up a barn rake and marched toward Possum. She smiled at me as I approached. With the sun to her back the half-blind dog was able to see me and the rake and read my intentions, so she grabbed up her rat, and danced off gagging it down as fast as she could. I tried cajoling her. I tried threatening her. I tried chasing her down. You know you're a punk when you can't catch a half-blind deaf dog.

I resorted to ordering the Labrador to steal the rat. This was fruitless too. Apparently possession is 9/10ths of the law no matter how small you are, and as such, Dillon had no intention of stealing a rat from a baby. MoonPossum settled down in the driveway to crunch the rat. The puppy grinned at me before turning her head sideways and crunching that rodent's skull like a child with a Tootsie Pop. And that was it. Down the hatch. All gone. It was enough to make me barf up my sourdough pancakes.

Rat down, MoonPossum burped and smiled at me. I gagged. The puppy was then happy to wiggle up to me. She tried licking my hand as I snapped a leash on her collar. I then locked her in a kennel run and went inside to scrub the rat cooties off my hands. And then scrub out the kitchen sink. And change coats. Cuz there were rat cooties on the sleeve.

Back outside I backed the dually out of the Hay Barn and rolled my garden cart inside for fresh alfalfa. Nikita meowed and curtsied to me as I hoisted a bale aside and uncovered a hidden graveyard of rat heads.

I plopped the bale at my feet in disgust. Nikita meowed again and stepped back and forth on her front feet kneading the air with her toes while I swallowed the rising bile in the back of my throat. Briar shuffled up beside me. After one quick glance to assess the situation, the big white dog snarfed up rat heads like popcorn shrimp. I gagged and stumbled outside into the fresh air and sunshine.

The only good thing about starting a day with dead rats is that things can only go uphill from there. Farms just ain't for sissies.

Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 11:32 am   |  Permalink   |  4 Comments  |  Email

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