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Farm Fresh Blog
Wednesday, November 21 2018
My heart broke yesterday when my old Livestock Guardian Dog, Briar, couldn't get up to greet the day. Her back legs wouldn’t work. She was quite calm. I cried like a baby. This was most unproductive as it upset the dog. I got her up and she wobbled around to supervise the chores. I put her in the house. She followed me back outside with a determined wobble. I cried some more.
I see the sun setting and am not ready to lose her. She is my rock. She insisted upon walking the sheep to pasture. It was a long, slow walk and after a short time she looked up at me and announced that she’d had enough - and so we walked back together, leaving the pup with the sheep.
On our way back to the barn the pup joined us. Bramble is not quite ready to stay alone. Briar is both her Professor McGonagall and her Professor Dumbledore. She is not ready to lose Briar either. They came back to the barnyard with me. A few minutes later the Anatolian Shepherd came back, followed shortly by the sheep.
I wiped my tears and walked back inside. Some time later I stepped out to check on them and wasn't sure whether I wanted to smile or cry. Briar was sunbathing on a hill as Bramble sat perched at attention beside her, watching over the flock.
My heart smiles and it breaks.
Wednesday, October 24 2018
Those of you with a dog training (or dolphin training!) background will remember Karen Pryor's book, "Don't Shoot The Dog." In my day it was mandatory reading. It's about more than just clicker training. If you haven't read it, pick it up. That book dates me though. I've been training dogs most of my adult life and I can tell you this - fads come and go, but dogs are always the same, and they don't read the books. But you should. I started out in sport dogs, then moved to show dogs, then working dogs, and now ranch dogs. There are some rules I've learned over the years. Purely positive dog training is nice in theory and it makes everyone feel good about themselves, but it isn't always reliable. Sometimes dogs, like kids, need to understand that the hand of God will reach out and smite them when they've committed a grievous sin.
In this blog I've always tried to share the triumphs and the tragedies because ranching is not always about babies and butterflies, sometimes it's about blood and bird feathers. The #1 reason why so many Livestock Guardian Dog breeds end up being dumped is because people don't train the puppy. And they are puppies. For the first two years that giant behemoth is a puppy. People always ask me "What is the key to raising a Livestock Guardian Dog?"
My answer is simple. Supervision. Supervision. Supervision.
First let us assume that you do have a Livestock Guardian Dog puppy comprised of some combination of Livestock Guardian Dog breeds. There are too many to count but here is a list of the most common: Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, Maremma, Akbash, Kangal, Polish Tatra, Karakachan, Sarplaninac, and Tornjak. If your dog is some combination of these dogs, then you most likely have the raw material for a good Livestock Guardian Dog. If your dog has ONE of these breeds combined with some other breed, such as a Labrador, Blue Heeler, or Border Collie, then you don't have a Livestock Guardian Dog, you have a pet. And there is nothing wrong with a dog being a fine pet, just don't trust it with your livestock. Before you regale me with tales of your Border Collie/Pyrenees cross who is the smartest dog since Lassie, let me just give a word of caution. Livestock Guardian Dog breeds come from generations upon generations of breeding for one job - protecting livestock. When you monkey with that breeding by adding things such as Labradors and St Bernards into the pot, you have unwittingly added traits and behaviors that go against what a Livestock Guardian Dog is bred to do. Prepare yourself. Genetics have a way of popping up at the most inopportune moments.
So let's go back to our assumption that you do indeed, have a Livestock Guardian Dog puppy. How do you train it?
The one piece of bad advice which is simply the booger on the end of your finger that you just can't seem to shake off is this - put the puppy alone with the livestock and have no contact with him. Then he'll bond with the stock instead of becoming a pet.
I really wish I could smack these people over the head with a dead chicken.
This piece of advice is the #1 reason why people trash Livestock Guardian Dogs. Quit doing it, folks. Stop it right now.
You will end up with dead livestock and giant dog that you cannot handle. So what do you do? You supervise the dog. Put him with the livestock but protect him from them and them from him. Kennel your puppy in a pen with your sheep. Put the dog in a separate pen so he can be with the stock but not be harmed or harm them. During the day when the flock is loose your pup may have to be locked by himself where he can see them, or you may have to leave a few sheep inside the pens beside the pup for company. When you are there to supervise, let them loose together. Do not let your pup play rough games with your livestock. Yes, he is playing. And yes, that's how he learns to kill. The game gets out of hand. Toss a bucket at his head immediately and inform him that is unacceptable behavior. I toss a lot of buckets when I'm training puppies.
Now let's move on to older pups. They seem dependable. They do. They do all the right things. They are submissive to the stock. They follow the stock. They seem to be buddies. This is when you are most likely to screw up. You think the pup is grown and ready for prime time.
He is not. This is when poor decisions are made.
Bramble got the crap beat out of her with a dead bird this week. And it was my fault.
First off, it is never the dog's fault. You're the one with the big brain and the thumbs. If things go south, it's your fault. And so the events that unfolded were entirely my fault. Bramble (Bam-Bam) has been a model Livestock Guardian Dog puppy. She's submissive to goats and sheep, and she ignores the free range poultry. Bramble is in the point of her career where she is given more and more free time and responsibility. She has been shouldering this well - until Monday morning.
Because I had an appointment and would be gone, I chose to lock Bramble up in a large pen with the Other Half's cow dogs because her sheep were already out to pasture and I didn't want her unattended while I was gone. I locked her up and then went inside the house to change clothes. On my way out the door, I heard Other Half yelling and using the Lord's name in vain. Apparently a free range guinea had chosen to fly INTO the dog pen with a Border Collie, a Blue Heeler, and a Pyrenees puppy. Poor life choice.
We've accidentally locked chickens in the dog pens countless times with no tragedy. The chickens tend to walk out of dog house like little Napoleans and strut around the pen with the dogs. A guinea is a much more reactive creature. They fly against the bars like a pinball. This behavior is a surefire way to awaken the prey drive in even the most dull of dogs.
When Other Half rounded the corner he saw his Border Collie and Bramble actively playing tug with a dead guinea. My guess is that Bramble killed the guinea and the Border Collie thought that was a fine idea and joined the fun. No matter which dog killed the guinea, both were in position of a dead bird and Bramble was having fun. Read my lips - she was not trying to save the poor bird from the Border Collie. She was having a spot of fun and it got out of hand.
After verifying that the bird was indeed, deceased, I did the unthinkable. I beat Bramble with the dead bird. She was horrified. Truthfully it was probably not any more painful than a pillow fight, but it rocked her world. She has never been smacked with anything other than a bucket (probably more painful) and being hit with a dead bird by someone she trusted was terrifying. I hated to do it, but here's the thing - I freaking can't have her killing birds for fun. And as horrifying as the experience was for her, the poor bird was probably having no fun when she killed it either. Shouting, "No, NO, Bad Dog" wasn't enough of a correction for the crime. This was a monumental sin which required a monumental punishment. She was beaten with the dead bird and locked in a kennel by herself. As I washed my hands I realized that I would be late for my appointment and my only excuse was "I'm sorry I'm late but I had to beat my dog with a dead bird."
When I returned, all was forgiven. Why didn't I take the dog to the pound? She had the taste of blood. She can never be trusted, can she? Horse Hockey. Bramble is a puppy. Puppies do those things. I should have locked her in a kennel that a guinea could not fly into because I know she is too young for that kind of temptation. Briar, my oldest and best Livestock Guardian Dog, was a confirmed chicken killer. She killed every one of the neighbor's chickens that walked across our barnyard. She killed them and she ate them. Briar knows that chicken tastes good.
When we got chickens at this place I made a point to teach Briar that these chickens were part of the farm and were not to be eaten. She is now fine with free-range chickens. We have 12 dogs and 17 free-range chickens and 5 (now 4!) guineas. I use the same training method on everyone. If you make a chicken run for any reason, I scream at you and bounce a bucket off your head. This method is high effective but you actually have to be present to toss a bucket at their head. This means that if the dogs are loose with chickens you must be out there until the dogs are trained. If you can't be, either lock up the dogs or lock up the chickens. Do not get rid of the dogs.
Too many Livestock Guardian Dogs end up trashed because no one took the time to train them properly. Trust me, it is far easier to train the first dog than it is to get another dog, keep it until it kills something and then shoot it, then get another dog, keep that one until it kills something, then get rid of that one and get another breed of Livestock Guardian Dog. If you don't change what you're doing the same thing will happen again. The cycle will continue until you give up and proclaim that Livestock Guardian Dogs don't work. Or until someone beats you over the head with a dead chicken. Don't trash your pup, train your pup.
And when mistakes happen, it isn't the end of the world. There is nothing wrong with your dog. He just isn't ready for prime time yet. Give him time and training. It's worth the investment. Supervise your dog and your livestock. And when you can't supervise them, lock them in a safe place. My mistake was that I didn't lock Bramble in a safe place.
Tuesday, October 16 2018
Wet sheep shit squishes through the cracks in my boot like wet coffee grounds pushed through a child's Play-Doh machine. No. It's wetter than that. Sloppy wet. And much more unpleasant. It's the sheep pen behind the barn. After months without so much as a hint of rain, the dried and barren pastures are finally getting some relief. Grass is awakening and springing back to life, bringing me with it. I know I've been gone too long when readers begin to send me personal emails and Facebook notes.
"Are you okay?"
Yes. Yes, I am. I'd like to say that I've been busy writing my next books. I haven't. Well, I have been writing some, but life got in the way this summer and I had to take a break. I lost my mojo. Temporarily. Not lost. Just shelved. The summer was spent driving back and forth to the doctor. Eventually, after a total hysterectomy, my oncologist declared "No cancer cells" and my life, which had become a merry-go-round in slow motion, began to unwind and spin again.
Now come the medical bills. They are delivered, not by a Harry Potter owl, but by vultures perching on the mailbox. The healthcare industry has a complex billing system, which either by accident or design, leaves the reader scratching the head in confusion.
"When did I see that doctor? Didn't we already pay that? Why did I get a bill for ABC and XYZ when I already paid ABC? Why am I getting bills from clinics on the east coast? I live in Texas."
And so it goes. Life goes on. The farm and its cast of characters is doing just fine. No, that's not true. I lost my beloved pet chickens Margaret Thatcher and her friend, Mrs. Gray in the wretched heat due to a miscommunication with a farmsitter. Everyone else on the farm survived the godawful heat and are now enduring the near-daily rains. And the mud. Other Half and I made a trip to Colorado to meet with friends and deliver some sheep. It was a nice vacation for us. A dear friend of mine from Houston farmsat for us that week. After months of no rain, it poured. She was stuck juggling sheep and ten dogs in the rain. With no cell phone coverage. I'm sure she was in hell. She endured it like a champ. A retired Crime Scene Investigator, nothing a farm could throw in her direction ruffled her feathers. After all, what's muddy dogs in the house when you've dug through brains in search of a bullet? Experiences like that shape and define you. After that, everything else is smooth sailing.
This summer has given me a greater appreciation of friends and living in a small town. There are no secrets in a town this size. That can be unnerving when you want to crawl into a cave and lick your wounds. In a small town, people will lift the rock you're hiding under, and reach down with a helping hand to pull you back into the sunlight. They will wipe your tears, ignore the dog hair dust bunnies you couldn't clean, bring over their own Border Collie, and set up camp in your house to help you until you can help yourself. And they will bring food. Lots of food. Friends in the country will not let you starve. Think funeral food without the funeral.
Our farm has been a revolving door of houseguests recently. That brings its own stress. Ours is a rather extreme lifestyle. I understand that but always worry that guests won't until they experience it for themselves. It's like a farmyard version of Jurassic Park. We live in a barn. With the animals. The line between house and barnyard grays considerably here. I try to stress that before people visit. Dogs. Twelve dogs. Large dogs. Some are the size of small ponies. If you are afraid of dogs, don't come. These dogs are our friends and co-workers. They belong here. This is a working ranch. We need them. Some of them are retired and living on disability. They still have a place here. (We should all have a retirement package this good.) Our door is always open to guests who understand that twelve dogs live here and the barnyard is just outside the back door. That raucous racket you hear outside the kitchen door is a group of guineas talking to my Other Half. That rubbing noise is a sheep scratching her ass against the wall. I am not kidding when I say there is a very thin line separating the barnyard from the house. And the dogs walk back and forth over that line like square dancers in a high school gymnasium. Some people can be unnerved by that. Others think they're in Disney World.
I'm writing this straight onto the website because my Other Half accidentally deleted Microsoft Office from my laptop. I know, huh?! How the hell did he do that? (Everyone in our small town is asking the same question and he's tired of hearing it.) So I no longer have Word, thus I cannot open my documents. When I remedy that problem I will share with you the first chapter of the new murder mystery ghost story I've been writing. Yes, I am still writing a sequel to FARM FRESH FORENSICS but this isn't it. At the moment I'm calling this novel BENEATH THE BLUE BOTTLE TREE and it's the story of a crime scene investigator who sees ghosts.
But at the moment, I still don't have Microsoft Word, it's cold and has been raining for days, I'm out of hay because it's been raining and I can't get hay, the sheep are stuck inside and are making a muddy, shitty mess of the barn, and dogs are sprawled all over the house like college students the day after a frat party. Sounds like a good time to make chili.
And for the folks who thought I fell in a well because I wasn't blogging. Here is how the other folks reached me:
Facebook personal page: Sheridan Rowe Langford
You can also check out my sheep facebook page at Red Feather Navajo Churros.
Come join us on social media. You can catch up on farm pictures there. Bramble is growing up so fast that you won't recognize her!
Monday, August 20 2018
Life Lesson: If you're juicy and tasty, don't attract a lot of attention.
Another Life Lesson: When you're drowning don't run from the hand trying to rescue you.
Every morning I spend an unreasonable amount of time scooping june bugs and crickets out of barnyard water troughs. June bugs are easy. They are floating Volkswagons who helplessly paddle their legs in slow motion, going nowhere. The hardest part of my task is resisting the urge to fling them off my fingers as they gratefully grasp at hope of a rescue. I don't. Because it's rude. I dump them on the ground and bid them farewell. I look first now though. One day I was scooping out and dumping bugs before I realized the dog and chickens were at my feet, snatching them up like popcorn. Now I look before I dump.
The crickets are much more difficult to rescue. They cling to the side of the water trough like rock climbers on a cliff.
These must be rescued or the brutal sun will kill them in a few hours. Some already float in the water, waiting to drown. So each morning I make it my chore to scoop them out of the trough. And they flee from my outstetched hand. Here I am, their Guardian Angel, and the ungrateful little snots run from me. The ones clinging to the tank, leap into the water and dive deeper to avoid my fingers. The floaters become divers. I watch their attempts to flee rescue with patient amusement. They will come up. Eventually. They'll run out of breath and finally gasp their way to the surface. Then, after they've exhausted all other options, I can scoop them up and place them safely on dry ground.
One morning as I was waiting for a particularly stubborn cricket to get exhausted and give up, I had an epiphany. How often are we just like this cricket? Running in vain from a patient outstretched hand there to rescue us. Interesting food for thought. I frequently have little barnyard epiphanies that bring me a wee closer to understanding my relationship with The Creator. Lessons in the barnyard illuminate God's word and put it in terms I can understand. I'm not a Biblical scholar. Far from it. I'm one of those folks who when asked to find a particular passage, still flips through the whole Bible in a furtive race to find the right spot before it becomes apparent that I'm clueless about where to look. I don't let it embarrass me anymore. And I don't hold it against God. Sometimes His lessons are in the written word, and other times the lessons can be found with a humble cricket.
When the rescuing hand from above comes to save you, don't dive deeper and run from it. Perhaps your Creator sent someone to save you from your current pickle.
Wednesday, July 18 2018
I was reminded of that story a few nights ago. Storms rolled through the area and because the thunder was pretty intense I let the Livestock Guardian Dogs all stay in the barn with the sheep. About 9:30 pm the electricity went out. We were forced to sleep with the windows open. It wasn't that bad because the rain had cooled things off a bit. Through the pitter-patter of rain I kept hearing the guineas give an alarm call but I thought they were griping about the rain so I ignored them. At 10:00 pm a lamb screamed. I bolted upright in bed and ran outside. The lamb had gotten separated from his mother. He was fine. But since I was outside I checked the guineas and the two month old Blue-laced Red Wyandotte chickens. I was unprepared for the image that will haunt me every time I close my eyes.
A rat snake was trying to choke down my favorite guinea. Pearl was too large and he couldn't get past her head. Berserk doesn't begin to describe it. Other Half shot the snake. Saving the pearl guinea was out of the question. She was dead. Her head was partially digested. Because I didn't get out of bed. On the first night there wasn't a dog in there. I was hysterical.
The wounded snake was gonna die but was nevertheless determined to escape the pen. Rage. Rage like you don't know until your animals are threatened coursed through me. I shot him again. As a compassionate person I shouldn't feel any satisfaction but as a rancher, as someone who cared for that bird and raised that bird, and admired that bird, and gave her treats, and loved that bird - it gave me immense satisfaction to stand five feet away from a moving snake and put a .45 long colt bullet through the back of his head. And then that bastard was as dead as the bird at my feet. People more enlightened than myself were appalled and disgusted with me. Frankly Scarlett . . .
The other snake came back the next night. We caught him trying to get into the pen with the adult birds. If the smaller snake could kill a juvenile bird, the larger snake could surely kill an adult bird. The birds are locked up at night but they free range during the day. I'm willing to share my eggs. I'm not willing to share my chickens. The larger snake was shot too. Perhaps I simply haven't climbed that far up the evolutionary ladder yet. Do. Not. Threaten. My. Animals.
I probably should have let the matter die with the snakes, but I can't, and here's why. People make assumptions. Many time those assumptions are wrong. They assume I'm something that I am not. Most people reading this blog assume that I love animals and respect nature. I do. They also assume that because I have a deep, almost spiritual, affinity for nature that I won't kill. Wrong. I will kill something deader than a doornail if it threatens my animals. That offends some people. Perhaps it offends them even more because they never expected that I would do it.
People who want to save every predator are often pretty removed from the predators. They sit in protected homes and tell me that I'm a heathen for shooting a snake because I moved into his home and provided free meals. The meals aren't free. I go to great effort and expense to make sure those meals aren't free. I should also point out that suburbia used to be his home too. Many of these folks also don't have a clear understanding of just how remote our ranch is compared to most farms. People who condemn me visit state parks. I live in the park. When you are trying to raise sheep and chickens in what is, in essence, a large state park, then we'll be on the same page. Let me put it into perspective for you. Would you be so charitable toward the snake if it ate your kitten? Your puppy? It would. This guinea was the size of a young cat or a small Border Collie puppy. A litter of puppies or kittens whelped outside could have been wiped out one by one by a large snake that squeezed through a very small hole. I have always been pretty charitable toward non-venomous snakes but there is a line. Don't cross it.
I live up close and personal with coyotes, bobcats, and cougars. I have never shot at one. Coyotes have killed our calves, yet I don't bait them, lure them, or trap them. Coyotes have come right up to my barnyard fence to watch my sheep and test my dogs. I still haven't shot at them. Many sheep ranchers in our area hire shooters in helicopters to clear out the predators. We prefer to use Livestock Guardian Dogs. My dogs must patrol approximately 300 rough acres. Why? Because the sheep graze that area. Do they kill? Yes. Yes, they do. They will also kill every feral hog piglet or raccoon they can catch. Do I like it? No, but I can't have it both ways. I cannot hire a killer to protect my livestock and then gripe because he killed a raccoon forty yards from my chicken coop.
We put a great deal of effort and expense into containing Livestock Guardian Dogs and livestock. The stock is locked up at night and one dog is left out to guard the barnyard area because we have more livestock pens than we have dogs to guard them. It is probably not a coincidence that a snake killed a guinea on the one night no dog was on duty there.
Despite all our efforts to coexist peacefully with nature, some lines still have to be drawn, and certain people find that offensive. There should be no misunderstanding. I love nature, but when it threatens my animals, I will not hesitate to shoot it.
Tuesday, July 10 2018
A prairie dog mound. That's what I want. Screw having a lawn. I want a moonscape so I can see the little bastards. For that reason I use the barnyard area around the house as a sacrifice area for grazing sheep and goats. They can go out to the pastures but I still lock them in the barnyard to eat every shred of green the pops out of the dirt. And chickens. Free-range chickens are tiny velociraptors. Not only will they kill small snakes, they eat the bugs that attract the snakes - mainly cicadas. We have so many cicadas that the Livestock Guardian Dog steals them when she hears the rat-a-tat sound of a cicada caught by a chicken. Apparently cicadas are tasty and she enjoys the wings fluttering in her mouth. Her version of canine pop rocks.
This is our third summer here and we've greatly reduced the copperhead encounters but still remain vigilant. We've killed only two this year. Since our war on copperheads I've seen a rise in the non-venomous snake sightings. Most of the time these snakes get a free pass and a tip of the hat. Most of the time.
I draw the line at my henhouse. Big, bold line. No snakes allowed. I have three chicken pens, each with its own coop. At night the chickens return to their coops and are locked in for the evening. While the other Livestock Guardian Dogs patrol the barnyard, a pair of Livestock Guardian Dogs is placed in the center coop to discourage raccoons and the like. The drama started with a pile of sheep shit.
Earlier in the day I dumped a wheelbarrow load of sheep poop in the chicken yard where it sat like a Cocoa Puff volcano waiting for chickens to process it. The chickens apparently had better things to do because they left it there. The Great Pyrenees puppy saw it that night and decided it was the most horrid of mountain monsters. I put her in the chicken yard and left, but her barking brought me back. I was, indeed, amazed. My Pyrenees pup barked at a pile of sheep shit while a five foot long rat snake slithered alongside the chicken coop. She gave nary a notice, such was her panic and fury over the pile of shit. The Anatolian Shepherd who was supposed to be her tutor and coach paid no mind to the snake either. He wagged his tail when he saw me, stepped around the snake and came to the gate. I reached for my phone and called the Other Half.
"Bring me the snake catcher pole."
Our household has evolved a rather unique set of customs, most of which were spawned from close encounters with venomous snakes. At dusk I always carry a Judge revolver in my back pocket. It's cumbersome but it shoots .410 shotgun shells and that's handy when you find a copperhead or two lounging underneath your bedroom window. Because shotgun shells cost a dollar each and a running snake can take two shells, we bought snake catcher poles to grab the varmits with metal claws and detain them for decapitation instead. I still prefer shooting them because most snake bites occur when people are handling snakes, which is a big nope for me. Being male, my Other Half likes to tempt that insurance deductible as much as he can, so he prefers to use the pole grabbers.
I don't want to shoot a harmless rat snake, but I also don't want it in my chicken yard. Not only have my hens stopped laying in there (no surprise) but I have half grown chicks in another pen that I don't want to become snake happy meals. So Stanley Slitterin had to go. He sensed my lack of hospitality and slowly eased underneath the hen house before Other Half arrived with the grabbers. I assured him the snake was ginormous. He gave me that look men reserve for wives who pull them out of their recliners for absolutely no good reason. Whatever. I saw it. And it was big.
Saturday evening we were returning from town and I stepped out to open the main gate. Lo and behold, a copperhead by the gate. I pointed out the copperhead to the husband and made the universal hand signal for a handgun. Other Half nodded and reached for my Judge, which should have been in my hand but was in the glovebox instead. A minute later the snake contracted a lead poisoning disease and we were soon driving into the barnyard. I set my purse down while Other Half unloaded the truck. Time to lock the chicken coops. As is my custom, I carry a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. My flashlight beam illuminated about ten inches of a five foot long snake underneath the henhouse.
I called for Other Half and showed him proof. The snake stared at us and retreated back under the coop. That's fine. I was happy. He finally saw the snake. And it was big. As I bee-bopped toward the second chicken yard to lock those hens in, Other Half stopped me. "Give me the flashlight!"
Because we spend entirely too much time on Facebook, we'd seen how people use minnow traps and crab traps to catch snakes, so Other Half bought a minnow trap, stuck an egg in it, and set it beside the coop. Day 1: nothing. Day 2: nothing. He assured me again there was only one snake. I know what I know. I guarded the perimeter. The first snake did not get out from underneath the coop before we saw the second snake. End of discussion. On the night of Day 2 I walked out to lock the chicken coop and froze in my tracks. A rat snake was inside the coop and crawling up the back wall.
The hens were not amused. This is where date nights really take shape in our household.
No matter how annoyed you may be with the other party for whatever their real or imagined transgression, every spat is swept aside when handling snakes. While venomous snakes can be dispatched pretty easily with a pull of the trigger, removing a non-venomous snake that you don't want to harm, but you don't want to touch, can get a little western. I ran. (No, I did not. You do not run in my yard after dark. You walk quickly but not faster than the flashlight beam which hunts for copperheads like a searchlight in a prison yard.) I snatched open the cabin door and interrupted Other Half on his ham radio. Snakes in the henhouse take priority.
Other Half peeked into the henhouse. Then he stood up. There, standing in the dark in his underwear and house shoes, he declared that his pole wasn't long enough. I bit my lip as I tried not to laugh. He left me to watch the snake while he went in search of the longer snake catching pole. Like me, the snake was chuckling. Moments later Other Half returned with the longer pole. He squeezed the handle a few times to test the grabbers. The spring mechanism popped off. His pole broke. We would have to make do with the shorter pole. Our snake was longer than our catch pole. Things were definitely about to get western.
The problem with snakes in a henhouse is that you have to bend over to see them. We only had one flashlight and I wasn't turning loose of that sucker. I peeked through the window and held the flashlight beam on the snake while Other Half positioned the pole for the catch. The snake was quite uncooperative and amazingly strong for his size, but the Other Half finally got the snake wrangled and pulled him outside the coop where we could examine him better. He agreed this was a different snake. Much stronger. I whipped out the phone to snap pictures.
I thought this was funny until I pulled the camera aside and looked down. Shit. The snake was getting away. And coming my way.
(Yes, it's out of focus. Try a snake coming at your ankles and your picture will be out of focus too.)
I grabbed the useless long snake pole and tried to pin him down. Not happening. He slid underneath the pole and came toward my ankles. I screamed like a little girl, grabbed a rocking chair and slammed it down on the poor snake. It is a curious fact of life that two retired police officers can still be reduced to screaming little girls when a snake crawls toward their toes. We finally stopped screaming long enough to re-group, pin down his head, and get a better grip. Then Other Half lifted the head while I used the other pole to support the heavier body. The snake wrapped its tail around my pole and together the three of us walked toward the fence. All was well until we walked away from the security light.
Oh. shit. I forgot the freaking flashlight. Things quickly got dark enough to illuminate this fact. Someone who laughs at millenials left the flashlight sitting on a bistro table when she stopped to take pictures of the snake. Blush. Praying I didn't step on a copperhead, we carried a harmless little rat snake as if he were a giant anaconda. Once at the fence, we dumped the frightened and bewildered snake and bid him good well as he slowly made his way back into the forest. Hopefully the experience will keep him from returning to the chicken coop. It is highly likely that like my Other Half, he slithered his way toward a glass of bourbon. While he poured, I closed the door on another date night on the Red Feather Ranch.
Tuesday, July 03 2018
The pastures are parched and cry out for rain. I am in the field with the sheep when the skies darken and a slow rolling thunder growls across the sky like an angry bear. The sheep gather closer but otherwise ignore the growing storm. Thunder nears and the heavens spit forth much needed rain.
Not everyone welcomes the rain. Dairy goats opt out and run to the barn.
The sheep are unconcerned.
Puzzled, the dog watches the goats go.
But the sheep still graze.
It finally comes down hard enough for the sheep to mosey in. The dog waits behind the smallest lambs.
They dart and play in the shower, but finally follow like sullen kindergarteners pulled off the playground. It takes us longer to walk to the barn than the rain lasts, but any moisture on pastures is a welcome sight. A nod from the gods. A spit from the heavens. And for that we are thankful.
Monday, June 18 2018
My life should come with a soundtrack. That way I'd be able to decide whether or not to get out of bed. Yesterday I should have just stayed under the covers and whimpered. I swing between being poor and being broke. All money is pretty much spent on livestock and things that make life easier on the ranch. I rarely spend money on new clothes. I never spend money on frivolous clothes. Unfortunately most of my dress clothes are made for cooler weather. Because I'm in the choir at church and it's now too hot to wear choir robes over my jeans, it was time to bite the bullet and invest in some casual summer clothes - like normal people wear. I don't do normal well. It doesn't work for me. I now completely understand the Greek concept of the gods of Olympus playing games with humans for their own amusement. I'm sure I provide rich entertainment.
The day started well. The Other Half was up early. I was on the tractor setting up a new sheep chute arrangement. We managed to exercise the dogs and get everyone settled in pens and I changed for church. Uniform of the day - adorable lavender print top with white capri pants (that had matching lavender embroidery) and freaking adorable white eyelet shoes.
The Other Half took one look at me and said, "Those shoes won't even make it to the truck."
"I know. I'm wearing flip-flops to the truck and I'm bringing my white shoes in my purse. You're opening the gates so I can stay clean."
He grunted. "I don't see why you just can't wear blue jeans."
"Because it's church and you're supposed to look nice."
He shrugged. Men have no clue. Or maybe they know more than we give them credit for. Nevertheless, I didn't tell him how much I spent on summer casual clothes that I couldn't wear between my front door and my destination. Intoxicated with the splendor of my fresh new clothes that gave the illusion that I was a normal person, I decided a carwash was needed too. We live off a gravel road and so my little Toyota truck is always covered in white dust. Four dollars later my truck wasn't clean but the top few layers of dust was scrubbed off. I walked into church a happy camper. Cool, clean and carefree was the uniform of the day. Is this how normal people feel? Well darn, this is nice. I should try it more often.
After church we went to lunch where I made a concentrated effort not to get anything on my white pants or new top. I chewed Other Half out for accidentally stepping on my new white eyelet Jellypop shoes. A tiny sand-stained blemish on the toe. Oh, woe is me! A tragedy of epic proportions.
After lunch we drove an hour away to pick up some benches for the kitchen table since my chairs are so old and feeble they should be drawing social security and disability. I sat in the truck lest I get my clothes dirty. Other Half could load them by himself. He's strong.
On the way back home, I was playing on Facebook, basking in the glow of being normal, when he slammed on the brakes and my phone almost landed on the dash. A giant bull was walking down the highway. A lumbering black billboard. Oh my! You can't drive past that. So we turned on our hazard flashers and slow-rolled down the highway with the bull until we could read his brand. Then we called the sheriff's department. The bull was happy enough walking south on the shoulder of the highway. He was not ambling, he was a bull on a mission. Go south. We drove north.
We found a ranch house that somewhat matched the bull's brand and Other Half proceeded to ruin a rancher's Sunday afternoon Father's Day. The guy put on some shorts and leaped into his truck. We all headed south where we caught up with the bull. Here is the spot where my illusion of normal fell apart like shattered glass in a mirror. I took one look at that rancher trying to turn the bull and knew that someone was going to have to get out on foot and help him. I am ashamed to say that my first thought was not, "I hope no car hits that bull." Instead, it was "Well shit. I'm gonna ruin my new shoes."
So I took them off. Other Half slammed on the brakes and leaped out of the truck. "Here, you drive." Unfortunately he hadn't put the truck in park. Both of us started to get out as the truck tried to roll away. Crap on cracker! There go my new shoes! Other Half jumped back in and put it in park. Barefoot, I ran through the bar ditch and around the back of the truck to get into the driver's seat. There was a point as I ran through the ditch that two thoughts crossed my mind. 1) I hope none of us gets hit by a car. 2) What idiot chooses to run barefoot through a bar ditch in Texas during the summer because she doesn't want to get her shoes dirty?
Safely seated back in the truck, I slowed down vehicular traffic while Other Half and the rancher got the bull turned around and headed back north. Once he was moving north, the bull walked with the same determination he had used to walk south. Bull on a mission. Other Half hopped in the rancher's truck and followed the bull while the rancher jumped on my bumper and rode ahead to open a gate. The bull cooperated and we were soon giving out introductions and handshakes. I was elated. My white pants were still somewhat clean. All was well in the world. Other Half got back in the driver's seat and I picked up my phone to photograph the bull's ass as he walked off. We said our goodbyes and drove away. A few minutes later, the final broken pieces of my illusion mirror fell to the floor.
Lights on the dashboard started coming on and wisps of smoke came from beneath the hood. We limped into a driveway underneath what looked like a cell phone tower. A group of ramshackle campers were clustered at the base of the tower like a gypsy camp. Everything was behind a tall chainlink fence with multiple locks on the gate.
"Do you think they have water in there?"
It was soon apparent that the new shoes would have to come out of my purse and I'd have to get out of the truck. It didn't take long to figure out that we weren't going anywhere. So much for the carwash. Help was on the way though. Dear Friends Leo and Ruby were saddling up to come rescue us. Again. True wealth lies not in your bank account but in your cell phone favorites list. Who are your friends? Who can you call in a pinch? When faced with the choice between a rich bank account and a bank of good friends, choose the friends. Always. Life is not about money. The good things in life can't be bought, but they can be shared. Sharing the good times and the bad times with friends is a far better investment.
Do you have friends who will get out of their pajamas to drive an hour in the heat to rescue you? Do you have friends who will bring ice, water and gatorade? And this is the bar to strive for: will your friends, upon discovering that your fan belt has shredded AND pieces of it flew off and wrapped around other somewhat important engine parts, AND the owner's manual says your 4 Wheel Drive truck cannot be towed behind another truck, will your friends drive ALL THE WAY BACK TO THEIR RANCH to get a car hauler trailer? Mine will. Find friends like that. Find friends who will gently point out the BBQ sauce on your new lavender print top will come out - eventually.
Find friends who understand the frustration of ruining white clothes because they ruined their own white clothes the day before - when they rescued another stranded motorist, who was a total stranger. Good friends are there for you, even when they can't help. Even when another friend is on the way to your rescue, good friends want to help. As one dear friend pointed out later, "Even if we don't have the mechanical skills we can still be moral support. Four of us can stare at an engine instead of just two."
So this is what I learned:
Girl clothes are cute and comfortable, but not practical. I knew this when I was six years old. Why do I still have to learn this when I'm 55?
Money is like water. It flows in and out, but never stays. Use it when you have it, but don't get too attached to it. This is my own law of motion called "money inertia." Inertia is the tendency of an object to resist change in its motion. Money inertia is the tendency of my bank account to resist change. If something acts upon it, say, any increase in deposits, there will be a resulting decrease directly proportional to any money earned, thus the account resumes its zero velocity.
One can examine this scientific rule further by using this example. If money is earned through book sales enough to give the author the illusion that splurging for casual summer attire might be an acceptable idea, the universe will simply send an opposing (and hopefully equal) force (i.e. a mechanic's bill) to equalize the state of money inertia. Once the bank account has reached zero velocity again, it is in a resulting state of happiness.
The author, however, is back to eating beanie weenies. With no money, but rich in friends, and therefore, truly wealthy.
Friday, June 15 2018
One wouldn't imagine that a rancher in north Texas would give much thought to cobras and the truth is, I don't. Now. When I was a kid, cobras were a thing. Like many children of my generation, I grew up on a steady diet of The Wonderful World of Disney. It was a Sunday evening staple in our home. Three children and a dog would gather on the floor around the television set. This was before the invention of the remote control and during that time if you wanted a remote control for your television set, you had children. Kids these days have no clue. Their parents had them just so they would never had to get up and change the channel again. Then the remote control was invented and children became obsolete. But I digress.
Disney. Disney was more than a vacation spot. Disney used to be imagination. A one hour show on Sunday evening fueled the imaginations of children for the rest of the week. We could be whatever the magic makers at Disney studios dreamed up. Disney took us to foreign lands. Hand in hand with The Wonderful World of Disney was Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. This was the Animal Planet and Discovery Channel of its day. Thirty minutes of Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler, and Stan Brock fired the imagination of every child sitting on the floor in front of a glowing television screen. I wanted that life. I wanted Born Free. I wanted a lion sleeping on the roof of my jeep. I wanted to live with the animals, not in zoos, but in my home. I wanted elephants poking trunks through my kitchen window. I wanted to shoo the monkey away from my blender. I wanted a parrot that answered the phone. But I didn't want cobras. I already had rattlesnakes. No fun at all. Cobras are bigger and kill you faster. Definitely strike cobras off the list. I read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi about a pet mongoose who saves his family from a cobra. This fueled both my desire for a mongoose and my love of Rudyard Kipling, who gave me the ultimate thrill - The Jungle Book. Not the movie, the book. Better story. More animals. Spoiler alert - the snake is the villian. No surprise.
So I sat in my swing, sipping my coffee, and gave some thought as to how Walt Disney, Marlin Perkins, and Stan Brock shaped the woman-child I am today. I did not come from a family of ranchers but it was an easy gravitation. After all, living on a farm is very much like having a elephant at your kitchen window. Our life tilts toward the extreme. We live in the barn with the animals. Sheep, goats, chickens, and dogs wander around the yard together in some lopsided version of a Disney movie. And the villian is still the snake.
A dog the size of a mountain lion scattered chickens as he raced through the barnyard with a piece of dried up watermelon leather in his mouth. Herding dogs hung off his sides like a pack of hyenas on a wildebeast. Chickens scrambled and then regrouped as the dogs played out their own scene of Wild Kingdom. I don't have a parrot answering my phone, or a monkey to chase off the kitchen counter, but as I sipped my morning coffee it was still pretty clear - I do live in the jungle.
Monday, May 14 2018
Just in case it comes up again, a Crime Scene Investigator can always tell the difference between the smell of decomposition and the overwhelming aroma of spring flowers. After all these years I'm not sure why he even bothers to question me, but nevertheless, he did. Seriously dude? Flowers?
Days like this really should come with a soundtrack so you get some warning. I opened up the wooden feed bin to feed the chickens. A mouse ran one direction. I ran the other. Screaming. There was much screaming. I don't do rodents. One would think my training as a Crime Scene Investigator would harden me for anything. Rotting bodies? Check. Rodents running near my fingers? Negative.
The mouse was trapped in the bin. A Rodent Removal Specialist was needed, because I wasn't getting it out. Senior Special Agent Lily heard my call for assistance. The Border Collie leaped into the feed bin and assaulted the mouse. When she peeked over the wall at me to confirm the assassination job was complete, I crept up and peeked over the side. Mangled rodent. My turn. Okay. Okay. Okay. I can do this. I took the feed scoop and slowly scooped the body up. The mouse regained consciousness and started a quick wobble up the scoop toward my wrist. The metal scoop clattered to the concrete along with the rodent. There was more screaming.
The Border Collie did a better job the second time. I sort of felt sorry for the little fellow. (Yes, I note my bipolar behavior too. "Eeek! Kill it!" "Awww... poor thing.") The Labrador raced up to inform everyone the mouse was his. Because Lily has high self-esteem, she was unconcerned by the Dillon's attempts to steal her work. He had his chance. Everyone saw it. He could have leaped into that feed bin too but he didn't. Like the guy at the office who takes credit for your work, he stole her mouse. She didn't give it a second thought. Nor did I. Problem solved. I thought.
Apparently my screams had sent out a 911 call across the sheep pasture too and the Big White Dawgs responded. The Livestock Guardian Dogs arrived in the barnyard to find me calmly filling chicken feeders. Judge noted Dillon had something interesting so he ambled up to the Labrador and said, "Hey Dude, whatcha got?"
The Labrador bit him on the ear.
Judge screamed and the reaction was much like an Avengers movie Hulk snatching up Loki. The giant Anatolian grabbed the Labrador by the head and flipped him over like a rag dog. There was no dog fight. It was like being bitch slapped by a gorilla. Over and done. I think I peed in my pants. The Hulk glared at me as I took his collar and hauled him off Dillon. I beat him with an empty chicken feed sack. (Okay, I shouted and slapped him a couple of times with the sack to make my point. Thou shalt not eat the House Dogs.) Judge informed me that he was the victim here. The brown dog bit him first. His ear was bleeding. Well, okay. There's that. I locked Judge in a kennel and Dillon, hackles still up from ears to tail, bounced away like Tigger as if nothing happened. God protects drunks and fools.
Coffee. Coffee. Where did I set my coffee?
I located my coffee mug, took a moment to breathe, and reflected on my plans for the day. We were missing a bull. We'd been missing the fence-jumping bastard for months. Last week we located him two ranches away but he opted against coming home and we didn't have enough Border Collies with us to force the issue, so we chose to return when we were better prepared. Not a task I was eager to start. Any more coffee? There was not.
While I was nursing the last drop of caffeine, Jury, the other Anatolian, shot out from underneath the cattle trailer to chase buzzards in the sky above the barnyard. As he ran, more buzzards exploded from a tree on the other side of the fence. A clue. I grabbed a gun and walked that direction. Jury slid under the fence and flushed up another set of buzzards by the pond. Definitely a clue. As I creeped through the mesquite and thorny black locust brush, I regretted my lack of preparation for this adventure. Blue jeans and snake boots would have been a plus. As it was, shorts and my oversized Justin boots with the cracks at the seams were the uniform of the day. The thorns scratched my legs. Penalty for my poor choice of fashion.
As I made my way to the pond, the whiff of decomposition floated past like a feather in the wind. Where? What? Who? Thus began the questions? Did I count lambs last night? Had we lost a calf? Impossible. Nothing would be bold enough to take a calf this close to the barnyard and the guard dogs. The decomp smell in the air laughed at me.
I couldn't find it. The area near that pond was a thorny jungle. The rising sun, the wind, and the berms around the pond were doing crazy things with the scent. I found an area thick with blowflies and heavy with decomp scent but still couldn't locate the source. A large red cow pushed her way through the brush. Delta the Flying Cow studied and then dismissed me to continue her journey. She bellowed for her calf.
I walked to a place I could get cell reception and phoned the Other Half. "I smell decomp and Delta is calling for her calf." That's not the wake-up call he wanted. He loaded up the ATV with cattle cubes and I met him in the pasture. Good news. Delta had found her calf. Bad news. We were still missing a cow. Snickers was due to have a calf. She'd gone walkabout. Perhaps the decomp smell was afterbirth. Fingers crossed. Since Snickers is an experienced mother, an extensive search of the property was not launched. She normally comes up a few days after her calf is born. Another cow bawled in the forest.
Wait! Black cow. Pushing through the brush!
The black thing that stepped out of the forest into the open pasture was not Snickers with a calf. It was a bull. Our bull. Our fence-jumping bastard had leaped four good barbed wire fences to get into this pasture. The cows were delighted to see him. Most of them had calves on the ground and romance on their mind. "Set up your dates now, Ladies, cuz he's going to the sale barn next week." Cattle that jump fences get sold.
That problem solved itself. Now, the smell.
We drove back to the pond. The Other Half couldn't smell it. "All I smell is flowers. Are you sure you smell something dead?"
Seriously? Did he just ask a CSI and 20 buzzards that question?
I walked into the scent cone and made him stand in it. Okay. Maybe it wasn't flowers he smelled.
With a bit more poking around we located the source. Dead raccoon. A poor raccoon had come to drink and was discovered by a Livestock Guardian Dog. I regret that. I really do. I don't like the dogs to kill things. On the other hand, in the years BB (Before Briar) I experienced the results of raccoons in a chicken coop. Night after night. They put me out of business. Poor raccoon, my ass. Nope. Not going through that again. That's why I have these big white dogs.
And thus was a typical Saturday morning. I did the mental tally as I loaded up and drove back to the house. Still missing a cow. Lost a raccoon. Lost a mouse. Almost lost a Labrador. Found a bull. The ebb and flow of mystery and drama on a ranch. And all before noon.
Update: Snickers returned to the herd with a bull calf on Sunday.