Friday, May 27, 2011

Saturday Market Story, May 28, 2011

A Farm Story for May 28, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm

We began our lambing the first week in February. That is a few weeks early for us but we try to stay ready for anything and the first lamb of the season was a big healthy ram lamb born with no complications to a seasoned mother who knew what she was doing. I say there were no complications at the birth but the little guy did go through a bit of a detour before resuming a normal lamb’s life.

Last May we acquired a six month old Great Pyrenees/ Kangal cross pup that Katy named Baloo. The rest of our livestock guardian dogs are Anatolian Shepherds but after Rudy, our old Great Pyrenees, died last summer I missed seeing a big fuzzy fellow in the pasture. When we stumbled across this litter in North Carolina I was thrilled. We went to visit a wild litter of pups in a field of goats. We chose a very shy but handsome fellow. He weighed 60 pounds at six months of age. He was so shy that the owner had to lure him in with food and sneak up on him to grab him. On our trip home we made a quick stop and bought him a hamburger, hoping to help him warm up to us. He was so anxious that he refused to eat. Because Baloo was so people-shy we kept him in the house with us for the first few days. He initially cowered at the front door but soon fell in love with us. Now he is just a big cuddly baby who seems to adore everything about living here. He even tolerates his weekly ear cleaning like a gentleman.

Baloo was 15 months old when lambing began and he jumped into it whole-heartedly. Last year’s first lamb came during the first week of March so we weren’t watching diligently for lambs quite yet. I had noticed a Tunis ewe that had separated herself and was laying on her side for a while but she got up and went on her way. The thought crossed my mind that before long it will be lambing season so I'd better get some decent sleep in the next few weeks before things start.

Al went out about eight o'clock to finish up chores but soon returned. He announced that we had the first lamb but that he didn't know who the mother was. I told him about the light colored ewe I'd seen earlier in the day so we took a flashlight and went back out. Al said he'd found Baloo with the lamb but no mother nearby. The lamb was perfectly clean and dry. Baloo was babysitting it. After some searching, we came up with the mother. Interestingly enough, the whole time we searched the lamb stood next to Baloo watching the process. Baloo continued to lick at it and nudge it closer to himself.

We got mother and son into a stall. The lamb was not only spotless, seemingly thanks to Baloo, but had a round little belly meaning he'd already eaten. It seems Baloo did allow mother to give him a first meal before kidnapping the little guy. We checked the ewe's udder and one side was already open. I popped the wax plug out of the other side and after we'd seen the lamb nurse we left them alone. Mother was gently licking his head as we tucked them into bed.

The next morning when I checked on them they were just fine. I borrowed the lamb for just a minute to show to Baloo. Mother was standing nearby. He enthusiastically began to lick it again. He also shoved it to his far side so that he was between mother and "his" lamb. I gave him just a brief visit and returned the lamb to its mother. Baloo trotted happily out of the stable.

This was Baloo's first assist at a birth. We were so glad that, even though he should not have really borrowed the lamb from the mother, he was not aggressive or hurtful. And since the ewe had lambed in the past and was a competent mother she was quick to take her lamb back.

Gwen, one of the Anatolian sisters, has also done beautifully this baby season. Last year Gwen was still a rambunctious pup during lambing and we kept her from the birthing ewes. This year she was fascinated and laid protectively near the ewes when they were in labor. She stayed about six feet away but watched calmly. On more than one occasion I observed her behavior once the lamb was born. She let the ewe clean her lamb and then gently snuck in to lick at the lamb and also at the ewe. She carefully cleaned up the damp spot on the ground where the lamb had been delivered. I believe that is an instinctual behavior to eliminate a sign of birth that might draw predators. When we carried the lamb into the stable with mother trotting behind Gwen always looked torn as if trying to decide if she should come along to protect this new one or stay behind in the pasture with the other pregnant ewes. We made her stay in the pasture so that the ewe and her lamb could have plenty of quiet bonding time together.

Even Sadie, our youngest Anatolian, has been a good helper. I’d told you previously about how she helped with little Ralphie, our abandoned kid. Sadie has a bad habit of climbing over fences to visit different pastures so it is a good thing that she is gentle with the babies. I’ve found her observing births from a few feet yards and cautiously trying to help clean everything up afterwards. She is still young enough to remember being slammed by a sheep or two when she was little and doesn’t seem to realize that she is approaching one hundred pounds and could hold her own. She is quick to jump back when a defensive mother turns toward her to butt and defend her lamb.

We haven’t had any more babies in nearly a month. It was a fairly uneventful lambing and kidding season and we are grateful for the dogs’ help. The dogs still enjoy the babies, often napping peacefully in the pasture while the babies romp around and on top of them. The lambs are as apt to curl up with a dog at nap time as with their mothers or siblings. And when all of the enormous dogs playfully roll through the pasture in a ball of flying fur the lambs are now quick enough to jump out of their way rather than being knocked to the ground. We never cease to be amazed at how God has programmed these livestock guardian dogs and their special relationship with their herd and flock. They are a valuable part of our farm family and we just love them!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Saturday Market Story, May 21, 2011

A Farm Story for May 21, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm

We had quite a dog fight Monday. Katy was home from college for the week and went out back to groom Regina, her Anatolian Shepherd. Regina is our oldest of the livestock guardian dogs and was born here. Katy claimed her as a pup, naming her after a favorite dance teacher. Katy and Regina have spent hours and hours together and they are very close.

Regina stays in the back of the farm. She is not a wanderer, preferring to stay in her own pasture even if the gate is open as we work. It has been ages since she has been as far as the backyard, let alone in the house. But she thoroughly enjoys our many visits throughout the day. She likes to lay at the top of her pasture and I speak to her every time I go to gather eggs. On a very hot day we may not see her all day as she naps down in the woods by the creek but at the end of the day she enthusiastically comes up for her dinner and a good snuggle.

A year and a half ago when we added two new Anatolian pups, Gwen and Allez, we let Allez join Regina. Gwen is in the adjoining pasture. Allez started out as a little fuzz ball but has grown into a substantial gal. She and Regina are both stocky and strong. They race up and down the hills in the back, Regina panting a little because of her old age. They usually get along well except if they accidentally crowd each other going through the back door of the old barn. In the winter or in bad weather I feed them inside the barn. They can quickly turn into a snarling ball of flying fur and slobber if they both try to enter the barn at the same time and one feels the other has pushed her. I have found it is safest for all of us if I can shove one back out the door and give them a cooling off period. They calm down quickly and all is well in a matter of moments. I let them back in and they eat. Regina wants to go right out after eating but Allez prefers to snoop around the old barn on the chance a hen has left an egg behind.

Years ago we had to separate Regina from her sweet mother, Lila. As Regina matured into an adolescent dog and began her own guardian duties the mother-daughter relationship changed and both just became fiercely protective dogs. I do remember some nasty fights, often involving plenty of wound cleansing and a few stitches afterwards.

Allez and her more petite sister, Gwen, also started to fight between their pastures when they turned about a year old. They only have a small common gate area along between the pastures that they share but they snarl at each other and often manage to get in a quick nip, often producing just a little bloody scratch.

There is much we love about our big dogs. We’ve also done tons of reading on the breed and their behaviors when working. As much as everyone hates the fighting, it seems it is pretty much to be expected. The dogs need to be territorial to protect their livestock. Female dogs, especially those that are related to one another, are some of the most volatile. Our two neutered males can get along with all of the girls and they also get along fine with each other. Sadie, our pup who is almost a year old, can also visit in the pastures. The dog in charge will growl, Sadie will submissively roll to her back and after a quick sniff both dogs will be jaunting around the pasture. I don’t know how much longer that will last as Sadie matures and the other dogs begin to perceive her as a threat.

So, enough background. All I know is that I was coming out of the stable when I heard growling and Katy using a very firm voice to call the dogs’ names. In an instant there was a full-blown fight. I ran to help Katy whose first priority was to step back. Once I joined her we each grabbed a dog by the tail and tried to pull them apart. The dogs are a good hundred pounds each and all muscle. Al, my sweet husband, was working on the other side of the stable and soon joined us. By the time he got there, I was sitting on the ground holding Regina by the tail as Katy was just managing to tug Allez off of her. Al grabbed Allez and pulled her farther away. The dogs both settled down but we did not let go. Allez had a bloody lip, blood that we later realized was actually Regina’s. Regina had a cut under her eye.

Since Regina looked to have gotten the worst of the fight, we led her through the old barn and into the barnyard so that we could examine her with no more threats from Allez. We initially thought we could just pack a little Neosporin into her cut until we pulled it apart to rinse it. It was longer and deeper that we thought so decided it could stand a few surgical staples.

Regina cheerfully followed us all the way to the house. She trotted through the downstairs door, was easily coaxed up the stairs and into the bathroom. Once Katy got her into the bathroom, Regina decided this was maybe not as much of an adventure as she thought. She began to balk at being confined. We carefully muzzled her so that no one got bitten holding her down for her stitches. Al and I decided to hold Regina while Katy worked on her. She carefully cleaned her wound and then tugged the edges together. She managed to get three staples in and left a small opening for the healing wound to drain. A good shot of penicillin finished off her care. Regina flinched some but did not put up much of a fight. Once she was released from the bathroom, she settled herself contentedly in the dining room and stayed there for the night.

The next morning she explored the front yard, happily returning to the house to be let back in. She spent part of the next day in the house with repeated trips to the front door to be let out. By the end of the day we returned her to the barnyard but have decided to leave her out of her regular pasture.

We’ve moved Ravi, one of the males, into the pasture with Allez. He loves to play in the creek so is quite happy there. Regina has spent the rest of the week getting comfortable with the lambs in the barnyard. She is also enjoying spending time with Baloo, the big Pyrennes Kangal cross. We may eventually put Regina back into the pasture with Allez but we’ll have to give it some more thought. Right now Regina is very content, wagging her tail as she explores her new territory. And her wound is healing cleanly. She had been cooperative as she gets a penicillin shot every other day.

We love our dogs and they do an excellent job. It is just fortunate that they don’t often have these kinds of moments.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Saturday Market Story, May 14, 2011

A Farm Story for May 14, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm
We are in the thick of getting spring hay. If the weather allows, this weekend will be the 3rd in a row that we will go to a gentleman’s hay field as he is baling and gather hay to put up in our barn. Although we do have a few other farmers who bale hay, store it in their barns and then deliver it in huge round bales as we need it, it is also important that we put up as many square bales as we can when we can get them. The hay we’ve been getting lately is fresh oat hay which is a treat for everyone. It is green, fragrant and apparently quite tasty. The sheep, goats, donkey and cattle love it and the chickens follow closely behind to gather the little bits of oats that fall off.
With the trailer and the pickup truck we can haul 100 bales at a time. As the hay is being baled, we drive between the rows of finished bales, tossing them on the trailer and then stopping every ten bales or so to stack them. When the children were younger they all helped. Al, the boys and I all loaded hay while our youngest, Katy, drove the truck. She was only 8 or 9 when she started driving in the hay fields. She stood on the floorboard and steered. The truck idled rapidly enough that she barely had to use the accelerator. She would step on the brake when we hollered at her. That was the only time she ever got to “drive” so she was enthusiastic about what was really a quite boring task.
When we found out a few weeks ago that we could go for hay, it dawned on us that we did not have any children in the house to drive. They all have their own families, jobs or college. I mentioned that to my precious friend who offered to come out to the country to help. She laughed that she didn’t think she’d be a lot of help but I knew it would be great for her to drive while Al and I threw bales. We headed out to the farmer’s place on a Sunday afternoon. When we got there we were surprised to see a few extra fellows just standing around. Al asked which row to start on while I rooted my work gloves out of the truck. When the farmer saw me putting on gloves he was surprised and told me I didn’t have to do that, he was paying these fellows to load hay. I asked him again if he was sure and his response was, “I’m paying these boys to load hay, not to stand here and drink my beer.”
With lots of help we quickly loaded the first 100 bales. Al tracked down the farmer so that we could pay and leave. He told us to go on home and just pay after we got the second 100 bales. We ran home and spent a good hour loading the hay into the barn. Our friend who was there to drive offered to help with some unloading and we gave her a pair of gloves. We all lugged hay into the barn and then sent her on her way, knowing that I could drive the truck while the beer-drinking help loaded hay. The next day I called to check on her and she said she thought she was fine until she went to pull open her sock drawer and realized how sore her fingers were from lugging each of those 60 to 70 pound bales by just a pair of twines. I don’t end up with sore fingers but I do have very tender forearms for the next few days after toting hay. It seems the soreness goes away just in time to start hay gathering again. We currently have 400 bales in the barn and we’ll see how much more we can get over the next few weeks.
Filling the old barn with hay has slightly complicated my egg duties. The hens, who are totally free range, assume we have simply set up dozens more potential nests for them. I now carefully walk through the old barn peering at every bale I can in an effort to find freshly laid eggs. There are a few spots where I scale the bales so that I can see the highest perches. I am gathering about half a dozen stray eggs a day. If I find a spot that I don’t recall seeing empty the day before I give that egg to one of the pasture dogs. I don’t want to take a chance of gathering an egg that wasn’t laid that day.
I also know that little Tootsie Pie, one of our oldest dogs, is squeezing under the door of the old barn and grabbing the eggs that are closest to the ground. She’s been such a good girl for years and years so that I can’t begrudge her a spare egg or two a day. I know that she’s been gathering when I find a broken and cleanly licked egg shell on the barn floor.
The hens have been laying like crazy lately so I don’t miss an egg or two that goes to one of the dogs. Although we have plenty of nesting boxes in several different places around the farm, it seems there are some favorite boxes that up to 8 hens will use in a day. Their favorites seem to be those with an attractive view or where there is a nice breeze even on a warmer afternoon. I sometimes find two hens crammed into a single box. I don’t know how they do it but they rarely break the eggs piled underneath them.
I am always intrigued by the different personalities of our chickens. We have over 20 breeds of birds and they do have certain temperaments that are specific to their breeds. Our Buff Minorcas and our Buckeyes are probably the most laid back. I can easily reach down and grab one of them. They just quietly watch as I reach under them to retrieve an egg. We have a few Rhode Islands that are absolutely vicious when it comes to protecting the eggs they are setting on. If you look at my right hand and arm you will find my war wounds and bruises I’ve gotten reaching under them. A few will peck but just as many will grab my skin with their beaks, hold tightly and twist as they pinch. They will also try to protect that nest box next to them, reaching out of their box to rap at me as I reach into the neighboring box. I had one old hen who died a few years ago and there are many days I think of her as I am battling these gals. She would see me approach her nest box, would stand and step aside so that I could easily reach under her for her egg. I have no idea why she did that but I was always surprised and grateful.
We’ve also had chickens within the same breed with totally different personalities. Over 12 years ago we ordered a variety of birds and ended up with two Phoenix roosters. They were very attractive birds with long showy tails. One was white on black while the other looked just like him except that his white markings were more cream colored. We came to refer to the rooster with the white feathers as Satan’s cousin. He had bright red eyes. He would stalk us, waiting for any opportunity to flog us with his nasty spurs. The rooster with the cream colored feathers barely looked up as we walked by but we learned to be wary whenever we saw either of the Phoenix fellows. I still have scars on my legs from the one fellow. Both fellows finally died of old age – our policy here is to let everyone live out their lives to the fullest- but I must confess it made egg gathering a lot easier when Satan’s cousin finally expired.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Saturday Market Story, May 7, 2011

A Farm Story
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm

On Saturday, March 19th, Al went out to do his morning chores as usual. He returned shortly with an armful of mess. He had two tiny goats that had been born sometime in the night but had been abandoned by their mother. They had been barely cleaned with only their little noses sticking out of their gooey birth sacks. They were cold but still alive so I began to work on them.

I rubbed them hard with a towel, dried them with a hair dryer and prepared some colostrum into a nice warm formula to get a little something in their bellies. Both were too weak and cold to suck at a bottle. Even the insides of their mouths were cold, a very bad sign. I put the colostrum in a syringe, greased up a stomach tube, and then held each baby tightly as Al gently inserted the tube down the throat of each little goat and gave them their first feeding. The twins were then tucked under a towel in a box on top of a heating pad. We continued to feed and fuss over them the rest of the day. It was evident that they had been born prematurely. They did not even have hooves grown onto their little feet.

The smaller of the two could not get warm, even while being held in my lap as I gently worked on him with a hair dryer. As hard as we tried, we could not save him. He died during that first night. The larger kid would frequently try to lift his head, bawling for a feeding. He was still too weak to take a bottle so we continued to tube feed him. Sometimes I just held and cuddled him as I worked on the computer or tried to knit.

Sadie, the youngest of our Anatolian Shepherds, was fascinated with him. She continually peeked into his box and licked at him. Whenever Sadie was in the house she laid next to his box and lifted her head if someone walked by him or if he began to cry. He lived through his second day with Sadie watching over him and nourished by a few more tube feedings. I am grateful that we can tube an animal but hate to do it often so constantly checked to see if he had the strength to suck at a bottle but he didn’t. At the end of the day we gave him another feeding and tucked him into bed. I awoke at about five the next morning and realized he’d not cried in the night so I was afraid to look into his box, knowing I’d find him dead. I came into the kitchen to find him trying to stand and silently crying out – apparently the many tube feedings we’d had to give him had made him hoarse. He had gained enough strength to take a bottle and his voice returned by the end of the day.

After several days of very intense care on our part, the little fellow started to become more active. He was jumping out of the box we’d housed him in, preferring to curl up on top of Sadie. Although he was walking around, his little ankles splayed his feet forward as they could hardly hold his weight. His hoofless feet ended in what looked to be two fat pink toes. He stumbled and fell often but fought to get back up. Sadie also did her share of knocking him over as she lovingly licked him from head to tail. She felt it was her duty to run to the side of our bed throughout the night to remind us that he needed a bottle. We were often awakened by Sadie even before the little goat began to cry.

The more he explored the house, the more he got into trouble. I had diapered him so that I did not have to constantly clean up after him but he was still a handful. One morning I found him under the ironing board, tugging at the cord of the iron in an effort to bash himself in the head. I tried to block off the stairwell but he squeezed around, tumbling down the steps a few different times. We named him Ralphie after the character in A Christmas Story who wanted a BB gun but was constantly told that he would shoot his eye out. Seems our little Ralphie spent most of his waking hours trying to get into trouble.

As Ralphie became stronger he began to follow either Sadie or me everywhere we went. His little hooves grew in, covering his funny feet. Once he was strong enough I began carrying him to the barnyard to play with the other kids while I worked. In about three weeks we moved him out of the house during the day and brought him back in to sleep at night. By the time he was a month old he was living outdoors with the other goats. He was still getting six or seven bottles a day but was beginning to follow the example of his peers and nibble on hay and grain.

Ralphie is now down to four bottles a day. He is a busy little man who recently accompanied me to a school for a visit. He does want to return to the house and will try to squeeze through gates as I am closing them. He winds himself around my legs as I walk in his pasture, craning his neck to get closer to me and tell me how terribly he needs just one more bottle. He has come along amazingly well.

I will give Sadie a fair bit of the credit for Ralphie’s story. Although she will not even be one year old until the end of May, her protective instinct is evident. All of our Livestock Guardian Dogs amaze me. The can be quite aggressive when they feel their animals are threatened. I have seen them work together so that one holds back a coyote at the fence line while the other dog quickly and almost violently pushes all of the flock as far away from the threat as possible. I’ve also watched even the youngest of dogs lay silently within a few feet of an animal giving birth. Once mother has birthed and carefully cleaned her baby the dog will gently sneak in and give the newborn a few tender licks. The dog will than thoroughly clean up any of the birthing mess so as not to draw predators.

Baloo, our Great Pyrennes-Kangal cross male, did borrow a newborn lamb from its mother. This is Baloo’s first baby season and the lamb was the first born this year. It had apparently been born very late at night. When we found it, the lamb clean and dry and was following Baloo around the pasture trying very hard to nurse on his lovely white curls. We had to take a flashlight and search all the ewes in the dark to find out who had given birth. Fortunately she was an experienced mother who was glad to take her lamb back once we reunited them in a stall in the barn. Baloo seemed disappointed to have lost his new baby. He did take quite a keen interest in all the rest of the lambing and kidding but we were better at catching the new babies and putting them up with their mothers before he could steal another. The dogs are a special part of the farm, giving us lots to smile about. They have also been a big help during a very busy baby season.

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