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Farm Fresh Blog
Monday, 30 April 2018
To loosely quote Robert Burns, "The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry."
And so we re-join our continuing saga of the Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte chickens. In the first episode of this drama, I found a breeder in Central Texas with a lovely group of birds and purchased two roosters and six hens. They promptly got sick. One by one all but three of the birds croaked because the breeder failed to vaccinate the chicks for the highly contagious and deadly Marek's Disease Virus. Live and learn. I assumed they were vaccinated because most hatcheries provide vaccinated birds. My mistake. Won't happen again. I had three hens left. Thus began the search for an adult, vaccinated rooster.
In the next episode, I found two adult breeding pairs of Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes which had been purchased as chicks from a local feed store that is known to buy vaccinated chicks. I put one blue rooster with the two new hens and put the other rooster with my free range flock of Golden-Laced Wyandotte hens where he would remain until the Marek's infected hens began laying eggs. The plan was to acclimate the rooster slowly to the Marek's virus by not placing him in the pen with the infected birds until he was used to the property and his immune system wasn't as stressed. This would be a race against time as it was also possible that the Marek's infected hens could become symptomatic for the disease and die before we placed the rooster in the pen. As it is, with the exception of one hen who has a bit of a limp, they are still clucking along quite well.
And thus begins today's episode.
The two new blue hens started laying eggs. I am still getting only one egg a day from the three infected blue hens. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, who takes no shit off anyone, is steadily giving one egg each day. I wanted to have another infected hen laying before I placed the rooster in the run with them. The plan was to wait until at least two hens were laying and then birdnap the blue rooster, Russell Crowe, and dump him into the pen with the Marek's infected hens, keeping my fingers crossed that Russell would not contract the disease because he was vaccinated.
This morning I fed all the chickens and released the Golden Girls and Russell. The Marek's hens made coy eyes at Russell and I considered putting him in with them this morning. The thought crossed my mind but like a dragonfly, it flited away before I could act on it. About mid-day I went outside and noted that Russell was missing. There were six golden hens and no rooster. That's a puzzle. Sometimes a group of girls strays outside the barnyard but never Russell. A casual search of the barnyard did not produce the rooster. I filed a Missing Persons report with the Livestock Guardian Dogs.
They took the report and joined the manhunt for the missing bird. I thought I heard him in the sheep pens behind the barn but a search revealed nothing. As the search area extended, it became apparent that this was not a Search & Rescue mission, but a Recovery mission. Despite an intensive search, Russell Crowe vanished like a fart in the wind.
The search party began to break apart. The Livestock Guardian Dog lost interest and plopped down in the shade, the Other Half got bored and headed to town. I was left with a quiet barnyard and dashed dreams. Nevertheless I was still thankful that I kept one blue rooster under lock and key. He becomes my only hope that the genes of the Marek's infected birds will survive. Still - I was left wondering. How was there no trace of Russell?
I couldn't let the puzzle die, so I headed back to the sheep pens. The Labrador pushed his way through the gate with me and I was too distracted to toss him out so I let him cruise the pens in his olfactory wonderland. Then I heard it again.
The soft sound of a chicken. Where? I looked around. Still nothing.
Trust your dog. I stopped searching the pens and watched the Labrador. There! Under an overturned bucket!
I carefully lifted the bucket to reveal a very relieved, half-roasted chicken. Apparently he hopped on the lip of a bucket to drink and it tumped over on top of him. Russell was quite happy to see me. He was even happy to see the dog. The Labrador went about exploring the pens in hopes of something more interesting than a chicken under a bucket. Russell was then captured and dumped into the pen with the Marek's birds. Margaret Thatcher was quite happy to see such a fine specimen of manliness and told him so. Russell answered, "Not now. I have a headache."
And so the saga of the Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes continues. Russell will stay in the pen for a while. We'll order a bottle of the Marek's vaccine and when it arrives we'll collect eggs from both pens of blue birds for incubation. Russell and I dodged the bullet today. It's time to start saving these genes. Living on a farm is a game of catastrophic expectations. Sometimes the drama unfolds into tragedy and sometimes it's just a bucket of chicken.
Thursday, 26 April 2018
Oh, how I hated those words, words which pointed out that I was different, words which accused me of masquerading as someone stronger, someone smarter, someone who had the right to do the fun things that I was good at. I grew up running barefoot in the forest with my brothers and prior to puberty there were few clues to strangers as to my sex since I dressed and behaved just like the boys. My mother didn’t fight it. I slept with a toy dump truck at night and she didn’t care. My brother had a Raggedy Andy doll. She didn’t care. He grew up to be a surgeon and a fantastic father of three lovely daughters. I grew up to be a crime scene investigator, a rancher and a writer. Clearly her decision to let her children defy social norms didn’t hold us back.
"You should dress like a girl so people know what you are! Act like a lady!"
From where I was sitting it didn't look like ladies had much fun. It wasn't that I didn't like girl things, I just had no use for them. Frankly, Barbie couldn't ride a horse. I know. I tried. Her legs pop off. Guys probably don't know that, but right now there are thousands of country girls, cowgirls, and horsewomen who are all nodding their heads because they know the truth. They know because they tried it. If you force a Barbie onto a toy horse, her legs will pop right off because her hips aren't wide enough. Now I ask you, what the hell kind of role model is that?
In the world of my childhood, I didn't need Beach Barbie, I needed Ranch Barbie. Ranch Barbie would be able to sit on a horse. Ranch Barbie wouldn't have a dream camper, Ranch Barbie would have a tractor. And a skid steer. Ranch Barbie wouldn't have a gym outfit. She wouldn't need one. Ranch Barbie would have muscles for lifting hay and water buckets. Ranch Barbie would have no interest whatsoever in G.I. Joe or Stretch Armstrong unless he could ride a horse or back a trailer. Ken wouldn't even be on her radar.
Despite all this Mattel toy company has gotten rich on the Dreamhouse train which left a trail of frustrated cowgirls in its pink sequined wake. We wanted to fit in. We really did. We wanted to be girls but where were all the strong girls? I didn't want to be Cinderella or Snow White, I wanted to be Merlin in The Sword In the Stone. I wanted to be Alec in the Black Stallion. I didn't need Prince Charming to rescue me. I needed Prince Charming to respect me, or get out of my way.
Over the years I've learned some things. Girl clothes are a waste of fabric when you live in the country. Buy denim. Staying clean is overrated and next to impossible if you have any kind of life. Girl hair gets in your face. Wearing it short or in a ponytail is just fine. You are expected to work outside as hard as your brothers and your husband. Work smarter, not harder. Most of the time it's not really about strength, it's about having the right tools. Little girls can be mean to each other. Get a dog. Boys do have more fun. And the most important thing - you are just as smart as the boys.
I gave these lessons some thought as I tooled around the barnyard, mastering the art of driving a skid steer to unload alfalfa hay so heavy that even the men struggled with it. "Be the Person You Needed When You Were Younger" I read this little meme on social media and it struck a chord. Yes. Free yourself to be the person you needed when you were a child. Be that role model for a little girl. Be strong. Be confident. Shake free from the weight of someone else’s expectations and be yourself. Somewhere a little girl is watching you. And she needs you to be yourself. What are you waiting for?
Monday, 23 April 2018
Reason #465 for why you should train your dogs. One of these things does not belong.
There in the Mean Dog kennel, in a moonscape of holes Mesa dug, is a chicken. Apparently I did not realize Russell Crowe was inside the pen when I locked the Border Collies in their prison for the morning. They had already been alone together for at least an hour when I discovered the new roommate.
Had I discovered a pile of red and gray feathers I couldn't really have blamed the dogs. It was my mistake. Mistakes happen and dogs are just dogs - which is why you must train for mistakes. People with gray hair and busy schedules will, read my lips, WILL make mistakes. It is inevitable. You must be like NASA - train for every disaster.
So even though my dogs are accustomed to free-range chickens, I still dutifully toss out cat food and bread crumbs for the dogs and the chickens to share. Each morning they all peck and scratch together so they get desensitized to each other under the distraction of food. Chickens aren't toys. They are competition in the food hunt for cat kibble. This method has been working pretty well, but it isn't until you have a senior moment that the theory is tested in the field. If you have a brain fart and lock a chicken in with Border Collies, then you'll see if your theory pans out.
Apparently it does. A quite healthy, but somewhat miffed, Russell strutted out the opened door when I found him. I was so relieved I took the Mean Dogs for another walk. They earned it. Not killing a chicken is definitely gold star material around here. So we went for a walk and I gave it some more thought. Each day I hear about dogs being re-homed or killed because they kill chickens. It saddens me. Outside of beating the dog and tying a dead bird around its neck, neither of which work, most of the time little or no training is given to the dog. Training a dog takes time and patience. It also requires a reasonable amount of intelligence and common sense. A dog does nothing to spite you. I want a dollar for every time someone tells me Rover was angry and did such and such "just to get back at me." No, he didn't. Rover is a dog. Dogs don't think that way. I also want a dollar for every time I hear that a dog knows he's done wrong because he looks guilty afterwards. No, he doesn't know killing chickens is wrong. He knows that every time you see a pile of feathers and a dead chicken you go bat-shit crazy and he's afraid of you when your head spins around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Spend some time training the dog before you re-home it. Note that I didn't say, "take it to the pound." Do not, under any circumstances, take that dog to a shelter, or a pound, or God forbid, drop it off "in the country." People who do these things aren't folks with problem dogs, they're just assholes. Most of the time these idiots get another dog within a year, sometimes from the same shelter that put their other dog to sleep.
If you cannot train around the problem then yes, other actions must be taken. We had a Belgian Malinois who was retired from police work because of an injury. The dog churned all her energy into hunting sheep. She could not exist on a farm without placing all the small livestock in grave danger. In her case, we simply could not train around the problem. She was that dangerous to small animals. There was no second chance. She was bred to be a killing machine and could not be blamed for her genes. Ordinarily I would try to juggle a dog like that but I run a farm and am responsible for the safety of all the other animals on the farm.
A dog like that is a slave to her genes, so she was re-homed with a retired couple who wanted an active companion. She was a happy camper sleeping on the couch with her doggy roommate and jogging with her new owners. All our other patrol dogs (all German Shepherds) were able to retire and co-exist quite happily on a farm.
You can't just go through dogs until you find one that acts the way you expect a dog to act, you have to train them. We ALL have problems with our dogs. My dogs aren't special. They are just as rotten as yours. My best Livestock Guardian Dog use to kill chickens. Another one killed one of my favorite barn cats. All dogs come with problems. Getting rid of a dog that doesn't meet your expectations and running out to get another one isn't your answer. I see a lot of really good dogs labeled as failures in one home that go to other homes and become the perfect dog.
Just train the damn dog. If you don't know how to train it, find someone to help you. If the dog simply cannot work out on your farm, be responsible and make the effort to find a good home. And most of all, remember that a dog is a dog. They are not furry children. They are not Lassie. They are primitive wolf-like creatures in nice cuddly suits who like to sleep on your couch.
Thursday, 19 April 2018
It's so cute when the lambs discover the Livestock Guardian Dogs. Most of the time they are too shy to give the dogs a full inspection but today a couple of ewes caught Briar sunbathing after a muddy dip in the pond and couldn't resist stealing a closer look.
They finally spooked themselves and ran off. Briar watched them go,
then she rolled over and looked at me as if to say,
"Was it something I said?"
This dog still cracks me up.
Tuesday, 17 April 2018
It has come to my attention (because people keep writing me for advice) that for some reason blog readers believe I'm an expertin the following subjects:
First off, don't send me your unsolved murder investigations. You don't have the complete report and I can't give an opinion on the crime scene without the crime scene report. And Lordy no, don't try to email me all the crime scene photos. It bogs down my computer and I'm gonna tell you the same thing - if you believe the local police did a poor job, then contact the state police and have them look at the case. I cannot investigate your murder case. I don't have enough information, and it takes an incredibly long time to look at what you send me and then say, "I don't have enough information." Yes, if you are a lawyer and do have access to the whole case file, then your situations are different.
Now, onto Livestock Guardian Dogs. I can only give you my experiences. My set-up is probably completely different from yours. We LIVE IN THE BARN. All that stuff you're hearing about keeping the LGDs from hanging around the house doesn't apply to us because the SHEEP are hanging around the back door too. I must measure successful LGDs not in the number of predators killed but in the number of livestock animals still alive when I lock up at night and when the sun rises in the morning. If the count is still the same, the LGD gets a gold star for the day. I can't tell you how to keep your LGD from roaming. Mine roam too. To varying degrees, all Livestock Guardian Dog breeds do it. The best I can tell you is to reinforce your fences, use hotwire where you can, and use a yoke when you can. Dragging a tire didn't work for me because I began to worry too much about hanging my dog.
And lastly, training Border Collies. I get a lot of questions about this subject. For some reason people think I know how to train herding dogs. That's a laugh. It's like one of those logic problems in school. My dogs herd, I am a dog trainer, therefore I must be a herding dog trainer.
Wrong. I am as baffled by all the diagram instructions in the herding dog books as you are, so assume nothing. My Border Collies work because I get dogs that are genetically stacked in that direction, and we do chores together. Lots and lots of chores. In the hands of a skilled herding dog trainer my dogs would be much better trained. I wish, seriously, I WISH I had the time and money to pay someone for regular lessons, but I don't. All I have is an empty bank account, a handful of dogs that are bred to work and a lot of work to do. That is the key, and the reason why my dogs 'appear' to be trained. They are not, folks. We have a good relationship and communicate pretty well, thus I'm able to roughly communicate my goals and reward the dog when it chooses the right behavior. Most of our success comes from living closely with the dog and the sheep.
I gave this some thought yesterday as I reached for Wyatt to help Mesa get the rams into their day pen. We work a lot on routines. The rams are loose in the pasture and barnyard at night. Each morning the dogs must put the rams into their day run behind the barn so the ewes and lambs can be released. The dogs know this game. The sheep know this game. Most of the time the sheep cooperate. Yesterday the rams simply weren't having it. They kept bypassing the gate and fast-walking around and around the barn. Mesa worked and worked but each time she got the little bastards close to the gate they would shoot forward to start the whole process again. Wyatt isn't ready for that kind of complicated problem on his own. He is at the 'we go out and basically escort the rams to the pen as they willingly comply' stage. He and I pretend it's herding, but it's not. It's following willing sheep. But here's the trick - he's done it enough to know that the rams SHOULD go into that pen, so when in my rage yesterday, when I opened the gate to let him come out and help Mesa, he already knew the problem. He'd been in a kennel watching the damned rams circle the barn four times already. With two Border Collies, the game changed considerably. Wyatt bowled in too fast but it had the effect we needed. There was no polish, but he was all the places that Mesa wasn't and the rams couldn't politely shuffle away. Wyatt and Mesa worked as a team and 30 seconds later the rams were penned. With the job completed, Wyatt ran from the gate and leaped at me for his big congratulations. Unlike Mesa who is embarrassed by praise, Wyatt is quite needy and likes to receive an Academy Award. The sheep were penned. He earned it. The ship was righted and our day could continue back on schedule.
That is how I train, folks. It's not pretty. It's based on relationship and routine. I cannot take ANY of my dogs onto a field and be successful in a herding dog trial, so I am not the person you need to ask for training advice. Find someone like the Sheep Goddess who actually trains and TRIALS Border Collies. My dogs simply have the advantage of working on a ranch. If we flub something up we don't have to wait until the lesson next week to try it again. And I don't have all week to obsess on my dog's brain-fart, or my own poor timing during the last lesson. Chances are good that the next lesson is merely the next time I step out the back door. My dogs can easily picture the chore because they understand the routine. When the routine changes I have just enough rudimentary commands (based on experience learned through routines!) that we muddle forward and create new routines. The dogs soon learn that it's all a matter of moving sheep or holding sheep.
I had to take this same approach to learning to use the sheepdog whistle. Not to blow it, I knew how to blow it. I needed to start putting verbal commands to a whistle because often Mesa has to work at a distance and the wind can get quite loud and blustery up here. It seemed that whenever I needed the whistle it was in the house, so I started wearing it around my neck. That didn't work because the lanyard allowed it to hang and fall forward into crap as I was doing chores. Not only is that not safe, it's not sanitary. So I put it the whistle on a heavy necklace chain and started wearing that sucker under my shirt as a necklace. (which is also not sanitary but not as bad as your whistle dangling in chicken shit.) Now that I had it with me all the time, any time Mesa started some little chore I began tooting my whistle commands. At first it was distracting to both of us but we soon developed actual tweets that made sense to the dog because I had paired them often enough with simple chores. I really love my whistle (Logan brand) and keep it handy under my shirt. Yes, it's dorky, but not really. Like the Border Collie, it's always there and that's the only way we learn anything around here.
For the most part we have to teach ourselves. The downside is that it takes a while and we learn bad habits. The upside is that no one is judging us but us. If the job gets done then we're winners. But make no mistake, that kind of lopsided training does not make me an expert in training Border Collies. If you live on a sheep ranch and have no regular access to a professional herding dog trainer, my best advice is to take that dog with you everywhere. They are little sponges. A dog doesn't learn much sitting in a kennel, but he learns an awful lot sitting in the pickup. And he's handy. When they're handy, you reach for them more often. When they learn what normal is, the good ones try to help. Reinforce their efforts. Needy ones like Wyatt want an Academy Award, but even the Mesa dogs in this world still want an "atta girl" even though they appear to blush and ignore it.
In conclusion, I'm not an expert in anything except making my own coffee in the morning. My advice regarding LGDs and Border Collies is simple. A dog is just a dog. When you start heaping too many expectations on the dog, you set both yourself and the dog up for failure. If you can find a good herding dog trainer, get the lessons. If you can't, then take your dog everywhere with you and don't expect too much too soon. And most of all, don't trash the dog.
Tuesday, 10 April 2018
Yesterday I turned the lambs out in the lower pasture. For a short time Bramble, the Livestock Guardian Dog puppy, got to join the flock. Since lambing started I've been keeping the pup separated from the ewes. Navajo Churro ewes are fiercely protective of their lambs and even a full grown Livestock Guardian Dog learns to steer clear of new lambs.
The lambs spent some time stalking Briar which apparently creeped her out.
Because I didn't want Bramble to have a bad experience, I've kept her away from the lambs until yesterday. She was tickled beyond all measure when she was allowed to accompany the flock to pasture.
She also exhibited the kind of behavior I want to see from a Livestock Guardian Dog. Bramble was curious about the lambs and wanted to sneak a sniff.
Her approach attracted the ewe's attention.
The ewe moved to stand over her lamb.
Bramble took a moment to digest this, then she turned her head in submission and quietly walked away.
And that's how it should be. A good Livestock Guardian Dog should be able to walk through the flock like a light breeze passing through a garden. Except for a sway here and there, nothing should stir. No one gets excited. Life moves on.
When I could no longer watch her, I brought Bramble back to the barnyard where she found a horse hoof trimming and settled down to chew it. Her trips out with the flock will get longer and longer. It's time to get a bell for her collar so I can keep track of her. She's sprouted legs and an independent nature now. We are moving from the period of puppy confinement with livestock to actual training with the flock. Because she is still young and I don't want her running into the woods after predators with the big dogs, she will still spend the next year under constant supervision. The time spent teaching Bramble her job now will pay off in the years to come. Training a Livestock Guardian Dog is time-consuming, but it's time well spent.
Saturday, 07 April 2018
Nineteen. Nineteen Navajo Churro lambs safely delivered. This does not sound like many sheep to the commercial sheep rancher, but these are rare sheep and my first year lambing this breed, so I'm happy with that number. It has been a whirlwind month of new arrivals. There were more twins than I expected. A couple of "Who's ya daddy?" lambs that surprised me. There were more ewe lambs than I can possibly keep even though I want to keep them all. There were more ram lamb candidates than I expected. I had only planned to keep one or two ram lambs, now I'm afraid to band (castrate) many of them lest they later develop into something I want to keep as a breeding ram. I have favorites but I want to see how their fleeces develop.
We lost one I didn't expect.
The only white lamb in the crop. A perfect little ewe lamb. She was apparently rammed by another ewe. Whether it was intentional or whether she was collateral damage in a scuffle between ewes, the result was the same. The baby had a traumatic head injury. We nursed her for several days but when she showed no significant improvement we made the decision to put her down. And as we made that decision, another lamb was born. The last lamb of the season.
Now begins the season of babysitting lambs in the barnyard until they are big enough and fast enough to keep up with the flock in the big pasture. The ewes are impatient. They want to move to the better grass. Hay is boring. I watch the vultures spiral in a lazy circle above the flock. Nope. The lambs are still too small. Not ready for prime time. The pasture is too large. Too wooded. Too much brush. It's too easy for a predator to snatch and run before a Livestock Guardian Dog can get there. So for the time being, lambs will cavort in the barnyard while the mothers gaze longingly through the fence.
And I can finally get some sleep.
Monday, 02 April 2018
What is a shelfie?
In this age of social media, those of us who have only managed to master Facebook are dinosaurs. (If I'm a dinosaur, may I be a velociraptor, please?) I am now struggling to learn Twitter and Instagram, so bear with me. Help me, please! You can find me on Twitter at @rowe_langford and on Instagram at sheridanrowelangford. I'm still trying to figure out the whole hashtag thing ( #farmfreshforensics #sheridanrowelangford ) and need all the advice I can get. Some well-meaning friends are trying to explain the hashtag thing but I feel like a caveman banging rocks together to create fire. I'll get there, but it'll take me a while.
Now, moving forward toward shelfies. I'm not a big selfie person, mostly because if I hold a camera that close to my face I am appalled by the old woman looking back at me in the photograph. If you also add the fact that it's almost impossible to get a picture of me without an animal, and trying to juggle a dog and a camera at close range is difficult, getting a selfie of me is out of the question. I am intrigued by this new idea of a "shelfie" though. It's just a picture of books. Books on your bookshelf, books with nature, books with animals, all these can qualify as a shelfie.
Here are some wonderful examples of shelfies that readers have already sent me.
The cat was sent in by a reader who said that Maggie the Cat was auditioning for the role of a corpse in case Farm Fresh Forensics was ever made into a movie. I laughed so hard that I almost peed my pants. Maggie nailed it.
So why send out a shelfie on social media?
Aside from the fact that it's fun, it's also a way to garner attention for the book from people who have never heard of the Farm Fresh Forensics blog, much less the book. (I need the money. I have a mortgage and a staggering hay bill, People! LOL) And I'm getting all this cool book-related SWAG that I want to give away. The bookmark samples came in this week. I loved them. The front side has Briar's eyes. The back side has the book cover design and a blank spot for an autograph.
Anyone who puts a shelfie on social media can hashtag me at #farmfreshforensics or #sheridanrowelangford, or just put it on Facebook or email it to me, and I'll send you a bookmark. (Privately send me the address where you want the bookmark shipped. Don't put your address out there on social media!) Then I'll put your name in the hat for a drawing. For the next few months I'll be holding drawings for coffee mugs and a couple of canvas tote bags. The sample mugs haven't come in yet but when they do I'll post a picture to show you. I'm most excited about those mugs! One is Briar's eyes and the other design is the book cover with the slogan, "Try to see fewer flies!" (If you don't get it yet, read the book and it'll make sense.)